Will the Liberals’ handgun crackdown boost interest in the Conservative leadership race?

OTTAWA—The last push to sell memberships in the Conservative party leadership race is on and the final count is getting an assist from two recent Liberal policies.

The deadline for the six candidates to sign up new members in support of their bids is Friday at 11:59 p.m., and sales are expected to surpass 400,000.

Much of it will be thanks to the candidates themselves, who’ve been aggressively courting supporters since the race began in February, both getting lapsed members to renew and new ones to sign on.

In recent days, they’ve upped the ante: this week, Patrick Brown’s team has been sending direct message via Twitter and Instagram, while late Tuesday, Pierre Poilievre’s campaign ran an old-fashioned telethon, broadcast live online.

Numerous MPs backing Poilievre ran phone banks across the country, trying to sell memberships and also make the case for Poilievre.

The team made close to 10,000 calls over the course of the night.

But how many members they — or any of the other campaigns — have signed up specifically is a closely guarded secret.

It’s also an issue campaigns are currently fighting over — the sales surge is straining the party’s infrastructure, creating delays getting new lists to candidates, and in turn hampering efforts to contact new members.

But forces bigger than the marketing moxy of the campaigns are also at play.

The leak of a U.S. Supreme Court decision that would overturn abortion rights in that country, and a subsequent Liberal government announcement of more funding for abortion services galvanized social conservatives, injecting renewed financial and membership support for candidate Leslyn Lewis.

Meanwhile, the anti-abortion group Right Now claimed on Wednesday that it alone has sold 6,000 memberships in the race, having spent two months travelling to more than two dozen cities.

“If every member in our database sells three more memberships to family and friends by Friday’s deadline, pro-life voters can massively increase our influence and win,” they wrote in an email blast to supporters.

This week’s announcement by the Liberals of a coming freeze on handgun sales could do for the race than what their May 2020 order-in-council banning 1,500 other kinds of firearms did for that year’s leadership campaign, Conservative insiders told the Star.

“It could be quite significant,” said one long-time Tory.

The 2020 announcement came two weeks before the end of membership sales, and multiple campaign sources told the Star it led to a massive sales push, especially in rural Quebec.

In that province, membership numbers are traditionally quite low.

Candidates able to boost support in smaller ridings get an edge in the points system the party uses to elect a leader: each riding is worth 100 points, and candidates get a share of the points that corresponds to their total vote.

That’s why in this race, some candidates have focused less on broad-based membership sales and more on targeting ridings with typically low membership numbers: the GTA, the Atlantic Provinces and B.C.

In 2020, the main beneficiary of that strategy was Erin O’Toole, whose stance on firearms was seen as tougher than his main rival, Peter MacKay.

O’Toole would go on to win Quebec, with a leading firearms advocate in that province, Guy Morin, publicly claiming credit for the win.

When O’Toole subsequently flip-flopped on his gun policy during the 2021 election, many firearms advocates felt burned.

Morin told his own supporters this spring that job one of any new leadership candidate was to rebuild trust with that movement.

He’s now backing Poilievre, who has also won plaudits from the Canadian Shooting Sports Association (CSSA), and the Canadian Coalition for Firearm Rights (CCFR).

“Canada’s Political Rock Star rocks CSSA’s “Stick to your Guns” Dinner,” read a headline on a recent post on the group’s website.

Both groups have also actively criticized candidate Jean Charest, pointing to his support of firearms regulation during his time as Quebec premier, and the CSSA has also warned against its membership supporting Brown over ethical concerns.

While Tories have accused Liberals of politicizing the shooting deaths of 19 children and two teachers in Texas earlier this month, Brown announced an element of his own gun policy that exact same day: a promise to scrap the entirety of the Firearms Act and start from scratch, an issue that has previously been an ask from the gun lobby.

Charest, Lewis and Poilievre have suggested they would review it, and all say more must be done to combat illegal gun smuggling and crime.

Scott Aitchison is expected to lay out his approach on firearms later this week, while Roman Baber has said the focus must be on stopping the entry of guns into Canada.

The fact the handgun freeze could come at any time — the Liberals have said it could be in place by fall — could prompt a last-minute membership surge this time around, or be used as a way to win over existing ones after the deadline passes, the insider said.

“The firearms community is very well connected to each other, they know who each other are and how to mobilize,” they said.

“The sense of urgency could even help.”

The new leader is expected to be announced on Sept. 10.


Conversations are opinions of our readers and are subject to the Code of Conduct. The Star does not endorse these opinions.

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