OTTAWA — When Andrew Scheer entered the already-crowded Conservative leadership race in September 2016, few predicted he’d emerge triumphant.

Scheer had made his career in Ottawa largely through the House of Commons Speaker’s office — a bastion for parliamentary procedure wonks, not partisan politics. He’d been a Conservative MP since the age of 25, but never a cabinet minister, nor someone whispered about as a future Prime Minister. He was seen as a bland but congenial guy.

Scheer’s leadership team, headed by Hamish Marshall, centred its strategy around that congeniality. They calculated that Maxime Bernier, the front-runner for most of the campaign, wasn’t likely to win on the first ballot. That meant attracting down-ballot support was the path to victory. Scheer may not be everyone’s first choice, his team figured, but he could be the second or third choice for far more people than Bernier.

What helped put Scheer over the edge in leadership voting would soon play a major role in bringing him down

So Scheer and Marshall ran a cautious, low-key campaign. Scheer didn’t attack other candidates aggressively. He was friendly to social conservatives. He courted the party’s MPs, growing his caucus endorsements to 32 by the end — the most of anyone. He focused on rural regions with lower numbers of voters, knowing each riding was weighted equally. He championed supply management, and in return, the dairy lobby signed up “thousands and thousands and thousands” of members for him in Quebec, Marshall told the National Post shortly after the vote. Scheer even won Bernier’s Quebec riding of Beauce.

The voting at the May 2017 convention went 13 rounds. Bernier was ahead in every one until the last, when he lost by a sliver. Scheer had started out with just 22 per cent support in the first round, but steadily grew it to 51 per cent on the final ballot.

During the race Bernier hadn’t yet taken on the populist persona that now defines him, but he’d promoted a brash style of libertarianism that would have been a drastic change after Stephen Harper’s leadership. Instead, the Conservatives emerged with what was seen to be a safer choice in Scheer. He was “Stephen Harper with a smile,” not well-known by the public but well-liked within the caucus. Party strategists set to work on marketing him as a credible alternative to Justin Trudeau and the Liberals.


Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer drinks milk to make light of suggestions he was indebted to the dairy lobby, as he takes the stage at the National Press Gallery Dinner in Gatineau, Quebec, June 3, 2017.

Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press/File

But what helped put Scheer over the edge in leadership voting would soon play a major role in bringing him down. A key moment at the leadership convention came after round 11, when Brad Trost — who had a surprisingly strong showing as an outspoken social conservative — dropped off the ballot. Trost’s voters surged to Scheer, jumping Scheer’s support from 30 per cent to 38 per cent, and putting him within two points of Bernier. Scheer owed his victory in no small part to the social conservative vote.

Scheer had walked a fine line on this subject throughout the campaign, particularly on the issues of abortion and same-sex marriage. A devout Roman Catholic, Scheer was known to personally hold socially conservative views, and it was reflected in his voting record. As a leadership candidate, he proposed policies that strongly appealed to social conservatives: a $1,000 tax deduction for home-schooled children, and a pledge to withhold federal funding for universities that didn’t uphold free speech (a big issue for pro-life student clubs). But Scheer also consistently said throughout the campaign that under his leadership, the party would not reopen debates around abortion and same-sex marriage.

That stance may have worked for a Conservative leadership candidate, but it failed spectacularly two years later during the general election. In August, just weeks before the election kicked off, the Liberals circulated a video of Scheer attacking same-sex marriage as a newly elected MP in 2005. It was a predictable attack, but Scheer and his advisers proved unable to defuse the issue, despite repeated chances to do so. Scheer responded that he “supports same-sex marriage as defined in law,” a carefully worded line that satisfied few, including many within his own party.

Another factor played a role in Scheer’s demise: expectations. Normally, a Prime Minister who had just won a majority would not be expected to lose the next election. But after winning in 2015, Trudeau was hammered by scandals in the lead-up to the 2019 election, and Conservatives began to think they had a very real shot at winning power.

First there was the SNC-Lavalin affair, which saw a rising body count of cabinet ministers and top staffers resigning over the allegation the Prime Minister’s Office had pressured the attorney general to interfere in a criminal prosecution. Then Trudeau was rocked by the revelation in the campaign that he’d worn blackface multiple times when he was younger. Scheer himself played a role in raising the expectations, telling a Toronto radio station in the final days that internal polling numbers showed a Conservative majority.

When the Liberals instead won with a strong minority, the knives were quickly out for Scheer. Some Ontario Conservatives were furious at his sidelining of Premier Doug Ford and his inability to win in the Toronto suburbs. Some Quebec Conservatives were furious over his fumbling of the social conservatism issue. Peter MacKay, a potential leadership contender, made public comments that the election was “like having a breakaway on an open net and missing the net.” Conservative infighting got so bad that allegations fed by insiders were flying on Thursday about whether Scheer had misled Conservatives about using party funds for his children’s private school fees.


Conservative leader Andrew Scheer at a campaign stop in Winnipeg, Oct. 14, 2019.

Carlos Osorio/Reuters/File

Ultimately, many Conservatives just never warmed to Scheer. Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, a longtime friend of Scheer’s, made reference to this during his tour of the Greater Toronto Area during the federal campaign. “Now, sometimes people say to me — conservatives, usually — why can’t (Scheer) be more aggressive?” Kenney said to Conservative volunteers at one stop, trying to fire them up. “Well, folks, I’ll tell you why. Because he’s actually just a really nice guy. I call him a severely normal Canadian … Is it such a terrible thing to have somebody who’s fundamentally nice, decent and honest?”

Now the Conservatives will plunge back into another leadership race. In 2017, members came around to the consensus “safe” option, the nice guy. But it didn’t work out in the end, and where the party goes now is anyone’s guess.

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