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Kevin O’Leary to quit Tory leadership race, support Bernier

The Canadian Press | posted Thursday, Apr 27th, 2017

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Celebrity investor and reality-TV star Kevin O’Leary, who rattled Conservative cages three months ago when he joined the party’s leadership race, did it again Wednesday by quitting a contest observers believe he had every chance of winning.

O’Leary’s stunning news – he’s throwing his support behind Quebec rival Maxime Bernier – appeared to catch even some members of his campaign team off-guard as they gathered to prepare for Wednesday’s final leadership debate.

Behind the scenes, however, O’Leary has been mulling the idea for about a week, say sources, ever more convinced that as leader, he might never be able to rally enough support in Quebec to deliver a majority Conservative mandate in 2019.

“It’s selfish to just take the leadership and say, ‘Great, I’m the leader, now in 24 months I will lose for the party,”‘ the frank-talking “Shark Tank” star told a news conference in Toronto.

“That’s not right. That’s just wrong.”


Related stories:

Maclean’s profile of Maxime Bernier, the man Kevin O’Leary is now endorsing for the Tory leadership vote
With Kevin O’Leary out, Conservative leadership candidates target Bernierp
Conservative rivals O’Toole, Leitch following divergent paths to leadership
For Bernier, freedom’s just another word for why he’s going to win leadership
O’Leary’s decision to attend final debate part of a broader political education


The tipping point, he said, came when he saw Conservative membership numbers overall that were even higher than he expected, which meant he didn’t have as large a share of the support as he thought he did.

When he learned that ballots had already been printed and mailed, he decided to act, picking up a phone at 1:30 a.m. to call Bernier, a longtime Quebec MP, to pledge his support.

The two share similar policies, while Bernier can deliver the number of seats the Tories need to form a majority government, O’Leary said.

On the campaign trail, the two weren’t exactly the best of friends. Bernier at one point called O’Leary a “loser,” and each campaign more or less accused the other of voter fraud, though the allegations were never proven.

But it was all smiles Wednesday as Bernier said the endorsement marks a turning point.

“As Kevin says, in Quebec the numbers for me are very good and the competition I had outside Quebec was really Kevin,” Bernier said in French.

“And we’re going to bring our forces together so we can win this race and then beat Justin Trudeau in 2019.”

O’Leary said he’ll do whatever it takes to help Bernier, but defended the fact his campaign sent out a fundraising letter just hours before he dropped out. He said he still needs the funds and will continue to raise money, though he didn’t explain why. His name will also remain on the ballot as the deadline to take it off has long passed.

A lack of facility with French was always considered one of O’Leary’s greatest liabilities.

Still, O’Leary had plenty of assets: instant recognition, thanks to years of television exposure; a public image as a savvy financial manager; and a brash, no-nonsense, outsider approach that echoed the unlikely ascent of U.S. President Donald Trump.

Interim Conservative Leader Rona Ambrose thanked O’Leary for taking part in the race and focusing on young Canadians, who she said will be saddled with the bad economic decisions of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

“Kevin brought thousands of young Canadians into the party with a common sense Conservative message,” Ambrose said in a statement Wednesday night.

Candidate Kellie Leitch, who has also ripped pages from Trump’s populist playbook, said O’Leary’s departure opens a door for her.

“I was phoning them throughout the day,” she said of his supporters, and she suggested some of his campaign team had already joined hers.

The Conservative party said Tuesday there are 259,010 members eligible to vote.

O’Leary claims to have signed up just over 35,000, and there’s no guarantee any or all will agree to back Bernier.

“This is terrible!” Facebook visitor Nathan Welbourn wrote on O’Leary’s page after the news broke. “I don’t even know what to say and I can reassure you Kevin my vote is not going to Bernier.

“As a citizen of Quebec I had a lot of hope (in) you. Extremely disappointed.”

A major point of divergence between the two candidates is supply management, a Canadian mechanism for supporting dairy farmers popular in Quebec that has been making headlines as Trump promises to do battle with Canada over trade.

Bernier supports abolishing the system, while O’Leary has called it vital to Canada’s agriculture sector.

The other Quebec candidate in the race, Steven Blaney, said since he also supports supply management, he feels he can capitalize on O’Leary’s Quebec support.

“It’s an opportunity to go and court the voters who were ready to make their first choice Mr. O’Leary,” Blaney said.


Full O’Leary statement:

“Canada desperately needs a change in government. While Justin Trudeau basks in the glow of celebrity status and focuses on his next opportunity for a selfie, he is destroying the strong fiscal position that Prime Minister Harper left Canada in. If Trudeau isn’t beaten in the next election, he will leave the next generation of Canadians, those thousands of Millennials I’ve been talking about, with a mountain of debt and high taxes. This cannot be allowed to happen.

The Conservative Party needs someone who has the best chance of beating Trudeau. Someone who will command the support of Canadians from every region of the country and who can build a consensus among all members of the Party.

I am proud that my team and I have been frontrunners in this 14-candidate race since the very launch of my campaign in mid-January. In particular, I am touched by the 35,335 people who purchased memberships to support our cause.  This list includes a whole new generation of young Canadians, many of whom are new to the Conservative Party, and I’m hoping will be lifetime Members.

I am not a politician, so I never pushed a shopping list of promises. I’ve had only one, to achieve 3% economic growth in Canada. In order to do this, I said I would have to deliver the Conservative Party a majority mandate in 2019 so that we could reverse Trudeau’s irresponsible and destructive policies.

I have now spent four months on the campaign trail.  My team has done extensive polling during this time, but more importantly I have spoken directly with thousands of Conservatives from across the country, and the concerns they are expressing are the same.

Here is what I know:

1.    Maxime Bernier and I are statistically tied as front runners.
2.    Because I am an outsider I have very weak 2nd ballot support.
3.    I am extremely strong in the West but have not generated material support in Quebec.

Second ballot support is always a concern for any candidate and all you can do is live with that risk and see where the votes settle.

The Quebec data is a different kind of issue and a big problem for me. There are 78 seats in Quebec, and the Conservative Party currently holds only 12 of them. In other words, the Liberals politically own Quebec. Without growing the Conservative base in Quebec, beating Trudeau in 2019 would be a huge challenge. The Conservatives did it in 2011, but only with a perfect vote split and in a political environment much different than the one that exists today. This is obviously very disappointing for me. As someone who was born in Montreal, I had hoped I would do much better there.

Like the other candidates, I have worked like hell on this campaign and I want the DNA of my policies and objectives to survive into the general election. The candidate that best mirrors my policies is Maxime Bernier, and he has strong support in Quebec.  He is perhaps the first Conservative in a long time that has a chance of winning over 40 seats there, which would materially improve our chances for a majority mandate.

So here is what I’m going to do; I’m withdrawing my candidacy from the Leadership Race and throwing my full support behind Max. I’m going to do everything I can to ensure he gets elected, and I’m going to ask my supporters to do the same. Together we will drive Justin Trudeau out of power in 2019, and we will work to get Canada’s economy growing at 3 percent.

This was not an easy decision for me to make but after much thought and deliberation, it is the right one for the Conservative party and the country.  The campaign and travelling and meeting with Conservatives has been an experience of a lifetime, and I owe so much to my Team, and the thousands of volunteers and Members that have supported me. Together we will move forward to change Canada’s direction for the better in the election of 2019.

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