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Conservatives could hit 500k members as leadership campaigns scramble for supporters

Click to play video: 'Ontario Election 2022: Day 2 sees party leaders pitch more promises to voters' Ontario Election 2022: Day 2 sees party leaders pitch more promises to voters
Day two of the Ontario election campaign saw party leaders make more promises to voters. As Alan Carter reports, while the Progressive Conservatives stuck to their script of building more highways, the Liberals and NDP made promises regarding capping classroom sizes and dental coverage. – May 5, 2022

The Conservative party is on pace to hit as many as half a million members as leadership candidates furiously scramble to sign up supporters, three sources tell Global News.

That number would almost double the roughly 269,000 eligible voters in the party’s 2020 leadership contest, which saw Erin O’Toole narrowly upset Peter MacKay to lead the party.

Read more: Six candidates make the final cut for Conservative leadership race

It is “far too early to speculate on the total number of memberships” expected to be sold during the leadership contest, party president Rob Batherson said in a statement to Global News. But Batherson said there is “a lot of interest” in joining the party.

“The Conservative Party of Canada appreciates the work of the leadership candidates and their campaigns in signing up members and are extremely grateful for the tireless efforts of our staff in processing and verifying the countless number of new memberships that arrive every day,” Batherson said.

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One party source cautioned that, while the party is seeing considerable growth in its membership rolls during the latest leadership contest, the final number of eligible voters “could be more, could be less” than 500,000.

That’s because each leadership campaign will have the ability to scour the membership lists and challenge their rivals’ sign-ups. Campaigns have until June 3 to sign up their prospective supporters, and any last-minute surges or challenges could affect the final number.

Click to play video: 'Poilievre favourite to win Conservative leadership race: poll' Poilievre favourite to win Conservative leadership race: poll
Poilievre favourite to win Conservative leadership race: poll – Apr 20, 2022

While such a jump in membership numbers is good for both party coffers and their voter identification efforts, two sources said it will present logistical challenges for the party running the leadership contest.

The sources said the task of validating and getting mail-in ballots out to hundreds of thousands of new supporters will be significant for the party’s HQ, which has seen some high-profile staffing exits after Erin O’Toole’s ouster.

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“If it’s that high, the party will have to delay the vote is my guess,” said one Conservative source, who agreed to discuss internal party issues with Global News on the condition the person not be named. The source suggested the party was “three to four weeks behind in processing” memberships.

“Just processing the memberships, and then mailing (ballots) out with enough time to get them back, that’s going to be real tough given how much the party is struggling (in processing memberships) before the surge.”

Read more: Conservatives ban pre-paid credit cards after Poilievre camp warns of membership ‘fraud’

While the party has been in the throes of another leadership contest since O’Toole’s unprecedented caucus revolt in February, the various candidate’s camps have been less focused on persuading existing members than signing up new supporters eligible to vote in the contest.

The campaigns keep their membership sales numbers a jealously guarded secret. But Global News previously reported that less than 48 hours after O’Toole’s ouster — and before the official start of the campaign — Conservative Party HQ was already seeing a surge in new member sign-ups.

The sheer volume of new membership sales have surprised party insiders. But because the campaigns are loath to brag about their membership sign-ups, it’s not clear if the numbers suggest a genuine spike in interest in the Conservative brand or a hostile takeover by a perceived outsider candidate — or some combination of both.

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The contest’s perceived frontrunner, Carleton MP and former cabinet minister Pierre Poilievre, has been drawing significant crowds at his events across the country. But sources close to Patrick Brown, the Brampton mayor and former Ontario PC leader, have said that their candidate is furiously working the phones to appeal to new party members.

Read more: An inside look at Patrick Brown’s pitch for selling Conservative party memberships

Multiple stories about Brown’s private appeals to various ethnic communities have also leaked out to the press.

Jean Charest has also had considerable success in raising money — the campaign claimed to have surpassed the $1 million mark in early April — suggesting that despite lackluster crowds and a quiet campaign, the former Quebec premier does have deep pockets of support. He also has a team of experienced organizers, including former party executive director Janet Fryday Dorey, working the phones.

With other candidates from the social conservative wing disqualified from the race, Haldimand-Norfolk MP Leslyn Lewis will likely benefit from that faction’s significant organization and motivated voter pool.

The two other candidates vying for the leadership, Parry Sound-Muskoka MP Scott Aitchison and former Ontario PC MPP Roman Baber, have smaller profiles within the conservative movement. But five of the candidates will have the opportunity to debate each other Thursday evening, when the Canada Strong and Free Networking conference — formerly known as the Manning Centre conference — kicks off in Ottawa.

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Read more: Joel Etienne demands appeal to disqualification from Conservative leadership

It’s an unofficial leadership event, but an important one, with conservative faithful from across the country watching.

The next Conservative leader will be announced on Sept. 10.

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