Is Kellie Leitch for real? When the Tory insider pushes her Trump-light message, who’s listening?
2017/01/28 Leave a comment
Good long read by Richard Warnica on Kellie Leitch’s leadership strategy, and the degree to which there is a ‘market’ for her use of identity politics, both within the party and the country more generally. Her campaign is a bit of a litmus test of Canadian resilience to xenophobia and anti-immigration messages:
Her appeal, then, is to a narrower slice of the Trump constituency, one engaged more by identity issues and immigration than economics and jobs. The question for Leitch is whether there are enough of those voters to carry her to victory in the Conservative race, let alone in a general election.
Pollsters and analysts from all three major parties are generally skeptical, though few rule out the idea entirely. Many see her values campaign more as a tactical attempt to stand out in the early going of the race than a genuine expression of belief. “She’s running against the mainstream, which helps her get headlines and raise money in the short term,” said Brad Lavigne, a longtime senior NDP campaign official. “But the bet is the short-term exposure that she’s getting now will come to haunt her if she were to win, because there is not a significant audience for this among general election voters.”
That’s not to say there is no constituency at all for that message in Canada. Compared to Europeans and Americans, Canadians are still relatively open to things like foreign investment, immigration and multiculturalism, according to pollster Frank Graves, the president of Ekos Research. But that support is not as strong as it once was, and it’s been going down for years. “A lot of people think Canada doesn’t have the same forces that produced Trump or Brexit,” Graves said. “It absolutely does. They’re a little bit muted, but they’re here.”
That audience is also disproportionately concentrated among Conservative supporters, the people Leitch needs to capture the leadership. Graves polled Canadians on support for Trump in November. A significant majority of Liberal, NDP, Green and Bloc supporters disapproved of the job he was doing as president-elect. But a majority of Conservative supporters — 57 per cent — approved. So when the Leitch team flicks at Trump’s themes or parrots his campaign, they aren’t necessarily poisoning the well, at least not the one they need to drink from right now.
Tim Powers, a longtime Conservative strategist and outspoken Leitch critic, believes at the very least she could use the Trump message to sell memberships. “I probably have responded as strongly as I have because I believe that they have the potential to win by playing off fears and discontent and misunderstandings,” he said. “I think I’m not alone in that. There is still a good portion of Canadian society that harbours an older, traditional version of the country. And some of that traditional version is good and some of it is not so good.”
There are also those in other parties who will admit, quietly, that Canadians of all stripes are not nearly as allergic to nationalist anti-immigrant messages as some would like to pretend. One senior Liberal said the party’s own internal polling shows that Canadians on the whole don’t love immigration, and that even on the refugee issue that captivated and helped turn the last election in the Liberals’ favour, the polling was pretty mixed.
Lietaer believes Leitch may find particularly fertile ground for her message in Quebec, where debates over cultural values, immigration and assimilation have raged for years. The Conservative Party actually won more votes and more seats in Quebec in 2015 than it did in 2011. Many attribute that marginal bump, concentrated in the Quebec City region, to the prominence of the debate over the niqab in the campaign.
“A student of mine told me, a few months later, that he had been working as an election worker and he said that the words at the end of the campaign were “niqab, niqab, niqab,” said Louis Massicotte, a political scientist at Laval University. “The general feeling here was that it was a good idea for the Conservative candidates to raise this issue.”
All of that said, the general consensus among the dozen or so strategists, pollsters and party insiders interviewed for this story, was that while Leitch may find an initial, vocal audience for her anti-Canadian values and anti-elite message, her potential for long-term growth is probably limited. “I don’t see what the second ballot strategy is here, because it’s such a polarizing issue,” said Lietaer.
Indeed, several strategists suggested Leitch’s best hope is to win on the first ballot, an exceedingly difficult task in a race with 14 candidates, a preferential ballot and an arcane system of dividing points between all of Canada’s 338 ridings. For Leitch, that job will be made even harder by the fact that, according to multiple Conservative sources, her campaign strategy has offended wide swaths of the party.
“Among the rank and file of the party, and frankly anybody I talk to in the party, anybody I know in the party, everybody is really, really right pissed off at her for doing this,” said Yaroslav Baran, who ran communications for Stephen Harper’s 2004 Conservative leadership campaign. Officially neutral at the time of his remarks, Baran announced his support for Michael Chong, one of Leitch’s rivals, this past week.