Apparent frontrunner for the Conservative Party leadership, Kevin O’Leary, unceremoniously withdrew from the race ahead of an all-candidate debate on Wednesday, endorsing his closest rival. The abrupt exit of the Shark Tank star has left Canadians scratching their heads.
The curious move comes just a month ahead of a vote that seemed destined to install him as leader of the second-place party, with a good shot at unseating Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the next federal election, scheduled for 2019.
O’Leary’s sudden departure from the race does not appear to have been planned. He was holding campaign events in Toronto in advance of the final official all-candidates debate on Wednesday evening.
A spokesperson for O’Leary’s abandoned campaign told VICE News on Wednesday afternoon that O’Leary made the decision early Wednesday morning, putting a call into his nearest rival, Maxime Bernier, to offer his endorsement around 2:30am.
The spokesperson said that Conservative Party membership numbers, released on Tuesday, proved for O’Leary that he couldn’t win. Those numbers showed the party rolls now stand at north of 250,000, but it’s unclear how that number — more than double the membership of the party as of just a year ago — would back O’Leary’s theory that he wouldn’t be able to win the country.
Even Wednesday morning, after his concession call to Bernier, even told supporters that he was working hard on his French so that he could debate Trudeau in 2019.
“Getting there, but not there yet,” O’Leary said of his French.
But later in the day, he told the Globe & Mail that his French wasn’t good enough to win the next election.
“I can’t deliver Quebec. I can’t win,” O’Leary’s told the Globe’s Laura Stone.
In announcing his withdrawal, he backed Quebecer Bernier, who had been estimated to be in second place.
Nothing about O’Leary’s campaign showed signs that the businessman and reality TV star planned on pulling out. His campaign sent fundraising emails to supporters just prior to his jumping ship, and he had planned media interviews right through to May.
Just last week, VICE News was invited to a closed-door luncheon with O’Leary, where he sought to woo bigwigs in Toronto’s financial district. While there, he swore that, should he lose his bid for the party’s top job, he would still remain an influence in the party.
Read O’Leary’s full statement:
Toronto, ON – Today, Kevin O’Leary issued the following statement regarding his candidacy in the Conservative Party of Canada’s Leadership Race.
“Canada desperately needs a change in government. While Justin Trudeau basks in the glow of celebrity status and focuses on his next opportunity for a selfie, he is destroying the strong fiscal position that Prime Minister Harper left Canada in. If Trudeau isn’t beaten in the next election, he will leave the next generation of Canadians, those thousands of Millennials I’ve been talking about, with a mountain of debt and high taxes. This cannot be allowed to happen.
The Conservative Party needs someone who has the best chance of beating Trudeau. Someone who will command the support of Canadians from every region of the country and who can build a consensus among all members of the Party.
I am proud that my team and I have been frontrunners in this 14-candidate race since the very launch of my campaign in mid-January. In particular, I am touched by the 35,335 people who purchased memberships to support our cause. This list includes a whole new generation of young Canadians, many of whom are new to the Conservative Party, and I’m hoping will be lifetime Members.
I am not a politician, so I never pushed a shopping list of promises. I’ve had only one, to achieve 3% economic growth in Canada. In order to do this, I said I would have to deliver the Conservative Party a majority mandate in 2019 so that we could reverse Trudeau’s irresponsible and destructive policies.
I have now spent four months on the campaign trail. My team has done extensive polling during this time, but more importantly I have spoken directly with thousands of Conservatives from across the country, and the concerns they are expressing are the same.
Here is what I know:
- Maxime Bernier and I are statistically tied as front runners.
- Because I am an outsider I have very weak 2nd ballot support.
- I am extremely strong in the West but have not generated material support in Quebec.
Second ballot support is always a concern for any candidate and all you can do is live with that risk and see where the votes settle.
The Quebec data is a different kind of issue and a big problem for me. There are 78 seats in Quebec, and the Conservative Party currently holds only 12 of them. In other words, the Liberals politically own Quebec. Without growing the Conservative base in Quebec, beating Trudeau in 2019 would be a huge challenge. The Conservatives did it in 2011, but only with a perfect vote split and in a political environment much different than the one that exists today. This is obviously very disappointing for me. As someone who was born in Montreal, I had hoped I would do much better there.
Like the other candidates, I have worked like hell on this campaign and I want the DNA of my policies and objectives to survive into the general election. The candidate that best mirrors my policies is Maxime Bernier, and he has strong support in Quebec. He is perhaps the first Conservative in a long time that has a chance of winning over 40 seats there, which would materially improve our chances for a majority mandate.
So here is what I’m going to do; I’m withdrawing my candidacy from the Leadership Race and throwing my full support behind Max. I’m going to do everything I can to ensure he gets elected, and I’m going to ask my supporters to do the same. Together we will drive Justin Trudeau out of power in 2019, and we will work to get Canada’s economy growing at 3 percent.
This was not an easy decision for me to make but after much thought and deliberation, it is the right one for the Conservative party and the country. The campaign and travelling and meeting with Conservatives has been an experience of a lifetime, and I owe so much to my Team, and the thousands of volunteers and Members that have supported me. Together we will move forward to change Canada’s direction for the better in the election of 2019.