OTTAWA — Conservative leadership candidates were asked Friday to stop fundraising and making calls to party members following a decision to suspend the race.
The decision was greeted with support, but also sparked confusion and concern about what took so long to make the move, and what it means in practical terms for the candidates.
The leadership race organizers had been under pressure for days to change the contest as the COVID-19 pandemic began shutting down large parts of the country.
During a lengthy meeting Thursday night, the organizers decided the June 27 date to announce the new leader was no longer feasible, citing a health risk for staff and volunteers and the impossibility of guaranteeing they could get the required mail-in ballots out and back in time.
They didn't set a new date, yet. But planned debates for April were cancelled and the mid-April deadline for new members to sign up so they can vote was pushed back to mid-May.
Organizers will convene May 1 to assess how and when the race can continue.
On Friday, they fleshed out that decision further, saying as of midnight, they'd no longer process donations and candidates will be "asked and encouraged to refrain from contacting party members."
Derek Sloan, one of four people on the ballot, said Friday what they didn't do was rule out a vote taking place at all this spring, even if the results are revealed later than planned.
That's unfair, he argued. If candidates are told to stop campaigning and can't raise money, the vote itself needs to be formally delayed. Otherwise, on May 1, candidates could be told the race is back on and have mere weeks to get voters in their corner.
"If this is the course that (the leadership election organizing committee) chooses to follow, they will have effectively ended the campaign today by removing the "discussion and debate" part of the democratic process and proceeding directly to "voting," he said in an email to supporters.
Sloan, a rookie Ontario MP, had been one of two candidates on the ballot who had called for a delay in the race.
The other, former cabinet minister and current MP Erin O'Toole, made a last-ditch pitch to his supporters Friday for funds before the party stopped processing them.
O'Toole said he agreed with the organizing committee's decision, and he was proud of the party for making it.
Two other candidates on the ballot had taken differing approaches to a potential delay.
Peter MacKay, the former cabinet minister who is also on the ballot, had argued the vote should be moved up.
He'd warned democracy itself was at stake if the race was delayed, and had given interviews Thursday suggesting his rivals were calling for delays simply for their own political gain. MacKay has been considered a front-runner.
On Friday evening, MacKay issued a statement saying he would respect the organizers' choice, even though it is not the one he had hoped they would make.
But he also suggested he does not plan to stop campaigning entirely, as he expects to speak to party members through livestreams on social media. He also noted his campaign had already become "completely virtual" in recent weeks.
"The public policy choices made over the next days, weeks, and months, could shape the future of our economy and our society for a generation," he said.
"It is important that Conservatives have a strong voice in these discussions."
Toronto lawyer Leslyn Lewis, meanwhile, had said the timelines should remain. On Friday, she said she trusts the organizers to make whatever decisions they need. But she also said she'd continue to have conversations with Conservatives, and later put out a policy proposal on combating human trafficking.
Three would-be candidates had been arguing for weeks that asking people for money and talking politics during a national health crisis was simply inappropriate.
Marilyn Gladu, Rudy Husny and Rick Peterson had all pressed the party to delay the deadline this past Wednesday for candidates to pay the entire $300,000 entry fee and submit 3,000 signatures in order to be on the ballot.
All three in turn failed to meet it, but the party was clear Friday nothing would change.
"This decision does not affect any previous deadlines — the deadline to enter the race and deadline to become a Verified Candidate are maintained," the organizing committee said in a statement.
Gladu suggested that decision sent a signal.
"Rudy and Rick and I called for this for weeks. The party waited for the qualifying date so we couldn’t get on the ballot, and the next day postpone the race," Gladu said on Twitter.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 27, 2020.
Stephanie Levitz, The Canadian Press