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In Quebec, weak membership numbers have Tory organizers dreaming big

The consensus among various campaigns is that Maxime Bernier is in the lead in Quebec.

CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS

Some see weakness in the Conservative Party's low membership numbers in Quebec, but political organizers sense opportunity.

According to officials from various federal leadership campaigns, 65 of the 78 ridings in the province have fewer than 100 members, including 38 ridings that don't even have 30 members.

Under the party's rules, however, these ridings will all be given the exact same weight in the final tally as the ones outside Quebec that have thousands of members.

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In a race with 14 candidates who have varying degrees of proficiency in French, the top leadership campaigns are all trying to capitalize on the fact small numbers of votes in Quebec will be worth hundreds of votes in areas of strong Conservative support.

Over all, Quebec will count for about 23 per cent of the 33,800 points that will be divided among all candidates on May 27, even though the province currently holds about 4 or 5 per cent of the party's membership cards, organizers said.

The consensus among various campaigns is that Maxime Bernier is in the lead in Quebec, where the Conservative MP for Beauce has been focusing much of his energies.

One riding association president said she has been flooded by e-mails and robocalls from all candidates, but that Mr. Bernier is the only one who called her personally.

"Maxime is the one who goes to the most events in the ridings," said Karen Cox from the riding of Vaudreuil-Soulanges, west of Montreal.

However, Mr. Bernier's policy proposals have rankled some Tories who feel his economic ideas are too extreme to be politically saleable in the province.

Conservative MPs Steven Blaney and Andrew Scheer, for example, are using Mr. Bernier's promise to put an end to supply management to mobilize dairy and poultry farmers, especially in the dozens of rural ridings that would be affected by the move.

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This position has helped Mr. Scheer attract the endorsement of four MPs from Quebec, the biggest haul of caucus support among any leadership candidate. Mr. Bernier, by comparison, has the support of two Quebec MPs.

Although late to the game, and with constant questions over his knowledge of French, businessman Kevin O'Leary is seen as a growing threat to Mr. Bernier, especially among Montreal anglophones or allophones looking for a right-wing economic agenda.

Conservative MP Michael Chong, meanwhile, feels he has a shot with Quebec voters, such as students attracted by his message on the environment. In addition, his campaign will be targeting a number of "anemic" ridings where any vote could result in large numbers of points in the complex selection process, an organizer said.

Each campaign is obviously trying to recruit new members, but one organizer said Quebeckers are more reluctant than ever to buy cards after a series of political scandals in the province.

"Some people have stopped trying to sell them," said one Quebec organizer. "In addition, the voting system doesn't encourage us to sell cards, but rather to win over existing members in smaller ridings."

Before a rally Tuesday evening in Laval, just north of Montreal, Mr. Bernier said he would be happy to come out of Quebec with about 65 per cent of the support, or 5,000 points, on voting day.

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In a speech to about 250 Conservatives, Mr. Bernier engaged in a long explanation of his conservative and libertarian philosophy, before encouraging his supporters to sell cards. "In order to win, we have to be strong in Quebec," Mr. Bernier said.

His top organizer in the Montreal area, Senator Leo Housakos, said having a bilingual Quebecker, with principled positions, will help to win over current members, but also bring past members back into the fold.

"I've always felt that Quebec, because of our limited membership but obviously strong weight in terms of support, will tip [us] over," Mr. Housakos said.

While party membership is low, Conservatives in Quebec argue the province should not be ignored in this race. The party won 12 of its 99 seats in Quebec in 2015, and there is a potential for growth against the Trudeau Liberals in the next election.

With three months to go in the race, there is also one major wild card in Quebec: Which candidate will nab the support of Gérard Deltell, the popular rookie MP from Quebec City who has a strong media presence and could sway votes in the province.

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Daniel Leblanc studied political science at the University of Ottawa and journalism at Carleton University. He became a full-time reporter in 1998, first at the Ottawa Citizen and then in the Ottawa bureau of The Globe and Mail. More

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