Businessman and reality television star Kevin O’Leary has dropped out of the federal Conservative leadership race and endorsed Quebec MP Maxime Bernier.
“I’m going to throw my support behind Maxime Bernier because I think it’s the right thing for the party,” O’Leary said as he spoke to media on Wednesday afternoon, just hours before a final leadership debate was to be held.
READ MORE: Kevin O’Leary woos Conservatives in Kelowna
The news is likely to send shock waves through the campaign headquarters of the remaining 13 candidates. O’Leary was considered a front-runner in the hotly-contested race, and had shown no signs of backing out ahead of Wednesday afternoon.
On Wednesday morning, he was still tweeting out calls for donations, and he said he would continue to raise money for the Conservative Party going forward.
The Shark Tank star officially joined the race in January. In the months that followed, he faced repeated criticism for failing to show up to debates and for spending extended periods of time in the U.S.
His grasp of the French language, which is weak at best, was also an ongoing issue for his campaign.
According to a release sent out on Wednesday afternoon, O’Leary made the strategic decision to bow out after realizing he could not secure the necessary support in Quebec to win the race.
He also acknowledged that he and Bernier were in a statistical tie for first place.
WATCH: Global National’s David Akin explains why Kevin O’Leary quit
“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,” O’Leary wrote.
“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.”
Bernier will now likely become the main front-runner as the party’s membership gets set to choose a new leader on May 27. The ballots are ranked, with each voting member able to mark down their top 10 choices.
WATCH: Conservative Party unity cannot be taken for granted: Scheer
The party confirmed Wednesday that although he has pulled out, O’Leary’s name will still appear on the ballots, which have already been mailed to members.
“(O’Leary) was the most obviously polarizing figure,” said Nelson Wiseman, a political science professor at the University of Toronto.
“I didn’t see people who were going to choose, let’s say, (Andrew) Scheer or Bernier deciding, ‘Oh gee, I want O’Leary number two’ … I believe him when he says he doesn’t have enough support in Quebec.”
O’Leary also made it clear he wasn’t interested in hanging around long-term unless he won the 2019 federal election and formed a majority government, Wiseman added.
“If you’re a real dyed-in-the-blue Conservative, what kind of leader is that?”
The party announced late Tuesday that it now has a record-setting 259,010 paid Conservative Party members, an increase of over 150,000 members from the beginning of January.