The epic race to become the next leader of the Conservative Party of Canada is finally over, with underdog Andrew Scheer winning 50.95 percent of the votes, enough to squeak out a two-point lead over Quebec MP Maxime Bernier. There are high hopes for the youthful new leader — chief among them setting a friendlier tone for the party, which some say suffered from a lack of charisma in the last federal election. Here’s what you need to know about the man Conservatives hope can beat Trudeau in 2019.
Who is he, anyway?
Scheer grew up in Ottawa, the son of a Roman Catholic deacon (he still practices that religion), and studied history and politics there before finishing his degree at the University of Regina, where he met his wife Jill (the couple now have five children —three girls, two boys). After graduation, he worked in insurance before moving on to the constituency office of Regina Canadian Alliance MP Larry Spencer. In 2004, he was elected MP for the riding of Regina Qu’Appelle, Saskatchewan, and in 2011, at age 32, he became the youngest-ever Speaker of the House of Commons. He won the Conservative leadership this past Saturday, a week after his 38th birthday.
What issues did he champion during the race?
Scheer ran under the tagline “Real Conservative. Real Leader” and focused on traditional Tory issues, like the economy, tax breaks and support for Israel. He earned the nickname “Stephen Harper with a Smile” for his ability to talk about these things with more warmth than the former prime minister.
He also appealed to the Conservative base with promises to defund universities that don’t protect free speech (he’s also against the anti-Islamophobia motion in the House of Commons, M-103), to remove federal sales taxes on home energy costs and to kill the carbon tax.
So he focused on the economy and tax cuts — what’s his stance on other issues he didn’t talk much about?
Scheer didn’t explicitly speak to women voters during the campaign, but he did promise to make maternal and parental benefits tax free (a pledge that’s seen as women-friendly). And though he’s a social conservative, Scheer has promised not to reopen the abortion debate or try to repeal same-sex marriage (he wouldn’t, however, say on Saturday whether he’d march in a Pride parade).
On the latter, Scheer told The Huffington Post, “For the party now to be silent on the issue means that there is space in our party for the Brad Trosts and the Michelle Rempels” — in other words, room for MPs with opposing views on some of the more divisive issues. He’s also a supporter of Brexit; He broke from the Conservatives’ neutral party line on the topic last June, but hasn’t said much about it since his entry in the race last fall.
What was his strategy for winning?
According to his campaign, he had the most support amongst Conservative MPs — more than any of the other candidates — from across Canada.
“He had a much more sophisticated strategy in terms of getting out the vote,” says senior Conservative strategist Michele Austin. He spent time visiting communities across the country but also “placed a lot of value on Quebec, even more than Maxime Bernier.” So strategic was his game in that province that Scheer actually won Bernier’s riding of Beauce, taking advantage of his opponent’s dairy farmer diss during the campaign, along with Bernier’s presumed assumption that support in his own backyard was a lock.
Social conservative party members are also “exceptionally organized voters,” Austin says. Other so-con candidates Brad Trost and Pierre Lemieux performed remarkably well on Saturday night, and voters likely pegged Scheer as their next best option on their ranked ballot, on which members pick candidates in order of preference. Scheer is the only Westerner who topped fundraising and poll numbers going into the vote, according to The Canadian Press. As the race narrowed, Scheer asked voters to pick him as their “#1 or #2” on their ballots, playing the long game for their support.
What does Scheer’s win mean for a federal election in 2019?
If all goes well for the Conservatives, Scheer will unify and energize the party, Austin says. Despite Scheer’s support from social conservatives, Austin thinks he might actually be best poised to continue interim leader Rona Ambrose’s progressive attempts to open up the party to more women.
“He recognizes what [Ambrose] accomplished for women and how important they are in growing the Conservative party, because they left us in 2015,”says Austin referring to the fact that more women supported the Liberals in the last election. “We need to win them back.” Scheer also has the benefit of hindsight when trying to craft a winning plan for 2019, says Conservative strategist Jason Lietaer: “This guy has the opportunity to take the lessons learned from the last campaign — the ideas weren’t all wrong; the tone was wrong — and apply that to the next campaign.”
He’s also a “regular guy,” Lietaer says, who can appeal to the average Canadian voter. “You can have a beer with him. You can probably have two if you wanted to.”