Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, king among leaders of the conservative movement in Canada, is endorsing Erin O’Toole to lead the federal party.
His seal of approval comes as O’Toole revs up efforts to catch up to Peter MacKay, whose leadership campaign has now raised upwards of $1 million in his quest to win the contest.
While MacKay has also secured endorsements from many current Conservative members of Parliament, Kenney’s endorsement was one of the most coveted in the leadership race.
Though now premier of Alberta, Kenney served as an MP from 1997 until 2016 and was instrumental in expanding the current Conservative party, especially among suburban Canadians.
His efforts saw the Tories steadily make their way from a minority government in 2006 to a majority in 2011.
Both O’Toole and MacKay sat in cabinet with Kenney in that majority government, and Kenney said Thursday it is O’Toole who has what it takes to lead the Conservatives to power again.
But he also took a dig at a remark MacKay made after the last federal election, when he called current party leader Andrew Scheer’s socially conservative values a “stinking albatross.” Scheer’s inability to pacify voters worried about what he might do with power overwhelmed the Tory message, MacKay said in October.
“No one will have their deeply held beliefs dismissed as ‘stinking albatrosses’ under Erin O’Toole’s leadership,” Kenney said in an email sent to party members and circulated by the O’Toole campaign.
“Erin O’Toole respects the breadth of our big tent coalition.”
When Stephen Harper stepped down as party leader on election night in 2015, after the Tories lost power, Kenney’s was among the first names floated to replace him.
But he ultimately decided to head to Alberta to try to unite the conservative parties there. He succeeded, won the leadership race for the new party and then won election as premier of the province.
His roots in conservative politics are as deep as his Rolodex is thick — Kenney’s help spooling up organizational and fundraising efforts for O’Toole could make a huge difference in his campaign.
In the email, Kenney spoke approvingly of some of the ideas O’Toole has put out so far.
“I have been impressed by his deep understanding of the challenges faced by the West and our energy industry,” Kenney wrote.
“He understands the need for a common-sense balance between creating good resource jobs while protecting the environment.”
Next week, O’Toole is set to unveil a full policy document. He teased some of the ideas Thursday, including invoking the notwithstanding clause to enact mandatory minimum sentences for violent crimes and illegal handguns.
Mandatory minimums were a hallmark of justice legislation under the previous Conservative governments, though many have been overturned by the courts as unconstitutional, hence the required use of the notwithstanding clause to restore them.
MacKay was justice minister in the Harper government, and spoke out forcefully against Supreme Court and lower court decisions overturning the sentencing provisions.
MacKay has spent the last few days campaigning on Kenney’s turf in Alberta. Friday, he moves his campaign onto Scheer’s territory of Regina, where he’ll give a speech to the Regina Chamber of Commerce.
It’s the first time he’ll speak to a crowd outside the grassroots meet-and-greet circuit that’s been the mainstay of his and other leadership campaigns.
His campaign says the speech will be broad and give some hints of the policy proposals he’ll put forward in the weeks ahead.
Only MacKay and O’Toole are officially on the ballot for the leadership race so far, having raised the entire $300,000 fee and obtained the 3,000 signatures the party demands.
Six other candidates are still trying to meet those requirements and have until March 25 to do so.
Party members elect a new leader on June 27.