So Long, Mr. Wonderful?

May 19, 2017

On May 27, 2017, the Conservative Party of Canada will announce Stephen Harper’s successor and the Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition. This individual is expected to lead the Conservative party against Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals in the 43rd Canadian federal election scheduled for October of 2019. The only one certainty at the moment: it won’t be Kevin O’Leary.

The Conservative race has been nothing if not eventful, a stark contrast to the far less crowded NDP leadership race that continues until October of this year. From Kellie Leitch receiving a lesson in digital marketing tactics by discovering that going viral isn’t always a good thing, to Brad Trost’s campaign manager elaborating on his candidate’s social conservative leanings, dull moments have been few and far between. The highlight of course remains the lead up to, and announcement of, Mr. Wonderful throwing his hat into the ring.

Before he had even officially declared that he was joining the race, fellow Tory leadership hopeful Lisa Raitt launched StopKevinOLeary.com (no longer live), aimed at curbing support for his prospective run. His presence has been disruptive on the Conservative political landscape to say the least, and drew comparisons to Donald Trump’s bid for the Republican nomination due to his background as an entrepreneur, brash reality television persona, and lack of history in politics.

Despite criticism from other candidates, and some glaring PR missteps throughout his campaign (notably a social media strategy disaster when a video filmed at a Miami gun range was posted on the day of the funeral for the six victims of the mosque shooting in Quebec City), support for his leadership bid continued to grow. Complaints that his participation was cause for distraction and prevented valuable discourse on policy fell largely on deaf ears as O’Leary continued to build momentum, recruiting new members for the party and working his way into pole position.

However, in late April, he withdrew from the election and endorsed Maxime Bernier, a former Cabinet Minister in Stephen Harper’s government. Despite leading in most polls and admitting that he was very likely to win the leadership, he cited an inability to grow his support in Quebec as his reason for dropping out. He stated that he believed the Conservative leader who takes on Justin Trudeau will need to pick-up 30 seats in Quebec, and that Bernier is the candidate most likely to do so.

His inability to make progress in Quebec is testimony to a lack of audience insight; many will recall his skipping out on the French-language debate and stating that residents of the province would “give me a pass on the language issue, because they trust me to do one thing well for them: make them economically competitive and get jobs for their children.” The assumption that being born in Montreal would generate support for him in the province was also misguided, as many Francophones were insulted that he felt he needed to make no effort to learn to speak French, and despite the Environics Communications 2017 CanTrust Index showing higher levels of trust in residents of Quebec, they were clearly not receptive to Mr. Wonderful’s PR tactics.

While disappointing polling results in Quebec remain the official line for his exit, there are rumblings about a simple loss of interest. Perhaps after three months of slogging through the leadership race, the prospect of a year and a half of campaigning across Canada seemed less appealing than spending time in the Boston brownstone he calls home, or listening to business pitches during a potential ninth season of Shark Tank. It has also been suggested in hushed tones that he had recently recommitted to the ABC program, which would write off the last few months as an exercise in raising his profile rather than a genuine attempt to become Prime Minister of Canada. Further to this, the surprising manner of his exit has also somewhat validated accusations of his being a political tourist.

Despite dropping out of the race for leader, O’Leary has mentioned potentially running for Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland’s seat in her Toronto riding of University—Rosedale, but it seems unlikely that he would continue to participate in the political process in a reduced role. Should he elect to do so, it would certainly validate his claims of dropping out of the race as a commitment to the greater good of the Conservative party. While we will know for certain by the end of 2019, the challenge is now for Mr. Wonderful to prove that his run for the Conservative leadership was more than a marketing tactic intended to build his brand and counteract the decline in Shark Tank’s ratings.