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How a vacancy in a safe Conservative seat could mean headaches for Erin O’Toole

A new vacancy in a safe Conservative riding gives the party an opportunity for renewal — or it could trigger the same problems that have cost the Conservatives elections in the past.

On Tuesday, Diane Finley stood in the House of Commons and announced her resignation as the MP for Haldimand–Norfolk, effective immediately. She signalled last fall her intention not to run in the next election; her official departure now leaves the seat vacant.

That means a byelection will have to be held within the next six months — if the whole country doesn’t go to the polls first.

Finley was first elected in 2004 and was re-elected five times. She sat as a cabinet minister throughout Stephen Harper’s time in power, holding a number of portfolios. Her longest tenure was as the minister for human resources and skills development.

The southwestern rural Ontario riding she represented for over 16 years is located on the northern shore of Lake Erie and is one of the safest Conservative seats in the province.

In the 2019 federal election, Finley won with 46.8 per cent of the vote, well ahead of the Liberal candidate’s 24.5 per cent. The NDP finished third with about 15 per cent of the vote.

Before Finley won it in 2004, the riding that is now Haldimand–Norfolk had been represented by the Liberals since 1988. But the Liberals’ last two wins in the riding, in 1997 and 2000, were due largely to the split on the right. The combined totals of the Progressive Conservative and Reform/Canadian Alliance parties was greater than the share of the vote captured by the Liberals.

At the provincial level, the Ontario PCs have held the area since 1995.

If a byelection were held today, the political hue of Haldimand–Norfolk probably wouldn’t change. While the polls in Ontario have moved by about three points from the Conservatives to the Liberals since 2019, that should not be nearly enough to overcome Finley’s 22-point margin of victory.

If the Conservatives found themselves losing in a riding like Haldimand–Norfolk, they’d probably be losing dozens of seats across the country as well. Only if the Liberals were on track to win more than 240 seats would you expect to see Haldimand–Norfolk in their column.

In short, the Conservatives are likely to retain Haldimand–Norfolk, whenever the vote takes place. So what matters most is who the Conservative candidate (and likely future MP) will be.

Leslyn Lewis was acclaimed as the party’s candidate in Haldimand–Norfolk in October.

A rising figure in the Conservative Party

A one-time candidate for the Conservatives, Lewis burst onto the national political scene in last year’s leadership race.

The Toronto lawyer finished third in the contest with 30 per cent of the points allocated on the second ballot by the party’s voting system, which gave equal weight to all 338 ridings. That result got her eliminated and paved the way for Erin O’Toole’s victory over Peter MacKay — but Lewis actually had more raw votes on that second ballot than any other candidate.

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Leslyn Lewis finished third in last year’s Conservative leadership race. She will be the Conservative candidate in Haldimand–Norfolk. (Tijana Martin / Canadian Press)

Lewis had been boosted by the elimination of Ontario MP and fellow social conservative Derek Sloan on the first ballot. When Lewis dropped off, the lion’s share of her support went to O’Toole, putting him over the top.

O’Toole owes a lot of the credit for his victory to those social conservative votes. He has since struggled to keep that wing of the party happy and had to ward off an attempt by social conservative activists to press their agenda at the party’s policy convention in March.

Having Lewis at that convention co-moderating a Q&A with O’Toole was a nod to those members. Unlike Sloan, who has since been booted from caucus, and MacKay, who was reportedly sidelined by O’Toole, Lewis has emerged from the leadership contest with what looks like a bright future within the Conservative Party.

Becoming the MP for Haldimand–Norfolk would cement her in her new role.

Unintended consequences for O’Toole

There are certainly lots of reasons for the Conservatives to welcome Lewis with open arms. She has proven herself popular with the Conservative base and a good fundraiser, having raised $2.1 million during the leadership race.

As a Black woman from Toronto, Lewis represents constituencies the Conservatives would like to reach.

But as a social conservative, Lewis also represents a constituency that has held the Conservatives back in the past — particularly among younger women who live and vote in the urban and suburban parts of Canada that happen to decide elections.

A new, prominent voice from the socially conservative wing of the party might not make reaching those voters easier.

Beyond her social conservatism, there are other hints that Lewis might not help the party broaden its appeal.

In an op-ed for the National Post she wrote last fall, Lewis claimed the Liberals had an “authoritarian socialist agenda” and accused the federal government of imposing inconsistent COVID-19 restrictions on families, small businesses and places of worship (restrictions which were actually imposed by provincial governments, most of them conservative).

She also wrote that she was hearing from Canadians who fear that “the Liberals will impose a social credit score, similar to the one that exists in China where people’s behaviours are monitored through 5G cameras.”

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Erin O’Toole (left) won the 2020 Conservative leadership race in part due to the third-ballot support he got from members who backed Leslyn Lewis (second from left). (Sean Kilpatrick / Canadian Press)

It raises the question of whether the Conservatives would be better served by a quick byelection that puts Lewis front and centre and on the bigger stage of the House of Commons, or by having her as just one among 338 candidates in a general election — someone who may help motivate party members and volunteers, even if she doesn’t win the party any new votes.

With his power to set the date of the Haldimand-Norfolk byelection, that decision will be Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s to make.

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