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How Maxime Bernier lost and Andrew Scheer won the Conservative leadership

Andrew Scheer, right, is congratulated by Maxime Bernier after being elected the new leader of the federal Conservative party at the party’s leadership convention in Toronto on Saturday.

Frank Gunn/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Maxime Bernier is the Quebecker who couldn't sweep Quebec.

Even though the Conservative leadership candidate campaigned heavily in his home province over the last 12 months, his unflinching stance on agricultural policy cost him dearly in the final tally of votes. In dozens of rural ridings, supporters flocked to rival candidates who promised to protect the existing quota system in the dairy, egg and poultry industries.

The eventual winner, Andrew Scheer, won all ridings in his home base of Saskatchewan. Mr. Bernier, on the other hand, lost to Mr. Scheer in nearly 30 of the 78 ridings in Quebec on the last ballot. The result basically took away Mr. Bernier's path to victory.

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Mr. Bernier succumbed to the mobilization of farmers such as Jacques Roy, the owner of a dairy farm in his own riding of Beauce. Fearing for his way of life, Mr. Roy launched a Facebook group last January called Friends of Supply Management and Rural Regions, which quickly attracted more than 10,000 supporters.

Not all of them were traditional Conservatives – in fact, many are supporters of the province's powerful farmers' union. Still, thousands paid $15 for a membership card and put Mr. Scheer as their first choice.

"Us farmers, we can't go on strike, we can't decide one morning not to milk our cows," Mr. Roy said as he explained his anti-Bernier campaign. "This is a case in which people in rural regions mobilized and got involved. We knew it was important."

As the results came in Saturday night, Mr. Roy went back on his Facebook page and invited his friends for an impromptu victory party. More than 20 people came over to celebrate the fact that a Saskatchewan politician had beaten their local MP.

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In the end, Mr. Bernier did not even carry his own riding, located just south of Quebec City, even though he is used to garnering massive majorities in general elections.

Promising to abolish supply management was Mr. Bernier's first big policy announcement after he launched his campaign last year. The system, Mr. Bernier argued, was a hidden tax on consumers who pay hundreds of dollars in additional costs every year for basic foods such as milk, eggs and chicken.

His solution was to buy back the quotas and unleash free-market forces over the entire sector. Mr. Bernier knew he was taking on Canada's powerful agricultural lobby, but as a candidate promising freer markets and lower taxes, it was a calculated risk that solidified his brand across Canada.

"It was a personal, ideological choice," he said earlier this month. "Look, I couldn't go out and say that I believe in free markets, except for supply management. I would have lost all credibility."

With a voting system that gave each riding the exact same value in the final tally of points, however, he became vulnerable at home. Mr. Scheer quickly capitalized, attracting four Quebec MPs to his team who had tried – and failed – to get Mr. Bernier to compromise on his opposition to supply management.

"Personally, I like [Mr. Bernier] a lot," said Pierre Paul-Hus, a rookie MP from Quebec City who ended up supporting Mr. Scheer. "But his approach to policy is very drastic. It's take it or leave it; he refuses to put water in his wine. We couldn't support someone who wasn't willing to make any concessions."

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As Mr. Bernier was campaigning in Quebec in February, he told The Globe and Mail that he was banking on getting 65-per-cent support in Quebec. On the last ballot, Mr. Bernier got 55-per-cent support in Quebec.

Even though he was a front-runner, and remained in first place for all ballots but the last one, Mr. Bernier simply failed to garner a big enough lead from the start to outrun Mr. Scheer.

The Bernier campaign had been hoping for a 10-point spread over Mr. Scheer on the first ballot. Instead, the lead came in at seven points, which spelled trouble in subsequent rounds. That is when other factors came into play, including the votes of social conservatives who initially backed anti-abortion candidates Brad Trost and Pierre Lemieux. Once Mr. Trost was dropped off the ballot, a majority of his support ended up with Mr. Scheer, who closed in dangerously on Mr. Bernier.

Weakened in his home province, Mr. Bernier was unable to survive when third-place finisher Erin O'Toole's votes were redistributed.

"The farmers made the difference. Remove them out of the equation and we win," said Martin Masse, Mr. Bernier's top policy adviser.

Mr. Masse said the entire Bernier campaign was based on clear principles and that Mr. Bernier is proud to have remained true to his ideas, even if it cost him a victory.

"We refused to compromise," Mr. Masse said. "We almost succeeded."

For Canada's agricultural industry, its success in defeating Mr. Bernier is a clear sign of the political dangers of taking on supply management.

"A huge thank you also goes out to all friends of supply management, both inside and outside of the Conservative party, and to the Friends of Supply Management and Rural Regions, for your continued grassroots support throughout Canada," said Isabelle Bouchard, a spokeswoman for Dairy Farmers of Canada. "We look forward to working with the Conservative Party, under Mr. Scheer's leadership, and Members of Parliament from all parties, as we head into the future."

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