The Bland Conservative ‘Dad’ Who Could Take Down the Trudeau Dynasty – POLITICO

Marie-Danielle Smith is a reporter covering Canadian politics, most recently for the National Post.

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — The tall, blue-eyed man in the off-white shirt cuts open an English muffin and tears off a piece of paper towel as his kids banter next to him in the kitchen. His wife wipes something off of his cheek. Folk music plays in the background as the couple piles their children into a minivan and drives off to school, in what could easily be a Dodge Caravan commercial but is actually an ad featuring the man who could become Canada’s next prime minister—Andrew Scheer.

Political strategists long thought the 2019 federal election here would be Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s to lose. He took office in 2015 with about as much international star power as a Canadian official can have—the young, smiling, yoga-posing son of a former prime minister who welcomed refugees to Canada and held his own against President Donald Trump. But after a string of domestic scandals and the revelation that the world’s wokest prime minister wore black- and brownface in his past, Liberal reelection is in jeopardy. Despite broad support for many of his government’s policies, Canadians see Trudeau’s personal brand as badly damaged.

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Now polling neck-and-neck with Trudeau, through little of his own doing, is Scheer, the leader of the center-right Conservative Party. Which means Trudeau could be unseated by a man who remains mostly unknown outside Canada—an unassuming, 40-year-old father of five who represents Saskatchewan, and whose party has been known to share photos of him swinging a baseball bat with poor form and playing beer pong wearing a suit jacket.

Campaigning in a country that’s broadly alarmed by the politics of its neighbor to the south, Scheer has faced accusations that he might use his power as prime minister to pursue a socially conservative agenda, or to try pleasing the far-right fringes of a party prone to fracturing. But his campaign has tried to focus on Trudeau’s deficiencies and offer a nonthreatening, even banal alternative. Even Scheer’s opponents admit he is a pretty nice guy. He quotes “The Simpsons” to his staff; he watches football and uses sports metaphors, associates say. Publicly, he likes to talk about his love for popcorn and tries to come across as the kind of person you might run into at a grocery store.

“He’s such a dad,” says Kenzie Potter, Scheer’s top adviser. “He makes dad jokes. He has a dad bod. He is the quintessential dad.”

Still, Scheer, who declined to be interviewed for this article, isn’t politically naive. His campaign presents him as Trudeau’s opposite: someone who promises to be fiscally responsible where Trudeau would overspend, who is a staid conservative, rather than a costume-loving showoff, and who, his staff are confident, is consistent enough to avoid the accusations of hypocrisy that have begun to plague the Liberal leader. He also has claimed he would push back more forcefully against Trump.

And he surprised many Canadians during the first official debate of the campaign, on Monday night, by confronting Trudeau directly.

“Justin Trudeau only pretends to stand up for Canada,” Scheer said. “You know, he’s very good at pretending things. He can’t even remember how many times he put blackface on. Because the fact of the matter is he’s always wearing a mask.” Addressing the prime minister a beat later, he added, “You are a phony, and you are a fraud, and you do not deserve to govern this country.” Scheer maintained a steady tone and even a slight, gentle smile during the attack.

At the end of the day, Conservative strategists say they hope a fed-up Canadian public will prefer to risk being sort of bored by their federal government, rather than being sort of embarrassed by it.

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Scheer has made much of his own humble upbringing. His father, Jim, now a Catholic deacon, was a librarian at the Ottawa Citizen newspaper. Scheer’s mother, Mary, who died in 2017, was a nurse. Scheer took a paper route as a kid and learned about the fall of communism from Citizen front pages, sparking an early interest in politics. As a teenager, he rode public transit. (“He said that he was destined to be a politician because he had to be really good at convincing people. Because imagine trying to get a girl to meet you on the bus for a date,” Potter says.)

As a politician, too, Scheer has often been the underdog—but managed to win. He seized a federal seat in Saskatchewan in 2004, at the age of 25, beating a longtime incumbent in the provincial capital not long after having moved there to be with his wife, Jill. In 2011, despite some naysaying, he became the youngest House speaker in Canadian history at age 32, assuming a nonpartisan role that includes moderating debates in the House of Commons, but also serving as something of a diplomat representing the Canadian Parliament abroad.

After Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s defeat in 2015, a crowded field of relative unknowns put their names forward to replace him as the Conservative leader, but several more obvious contenders held back. The candidate with the most name recognition, “Shark Tank” star Kevin O’Leary, dropped out late in the game, when it became clear that a reality television candidate would not be a slam-dunk on the Canadian center-right. That helped clear the path for Scheer, who some thought was too young and unknown to run for leadership, but who ultimately secured many key endorsements from members of Parliament.

Scheer’s campaign made strategic choices that positioned him for a victory on the ranked ballot. He was trailing Maxime Bernier—a libertarian who had proposed eliminating supply management on dairy, egg and poultry farms—so Scheer courted the powerful dairy lobby and won its support. His voting record in Parliament had been socially conservative enough to ensure support from anti-abortion groups, whose star candidates were sure to drop off the ballot early. And although he styles himself primarily a fiscal conservative, Scheer’s message during the leadership convention was one of unity, something attractive to the “big blue tent” of Canadian conservatism. (In Canada, the Conservatives sport blue and the Liberals red, a perhaps-unintentional nod to our long-standing attempts to differentiate ourselves from America.)

The slogging, 1½-year leadership race culminated in a long, tense evening in May 2017. At a packed convention hall in a Toronto suburb, with Mario and Luigi and a couple of furries loitering outside (the vote was held next-door to an anime convention), party rank and file watched as Bernier’s initial, comfortable lead narrowed. After trailing all night, Scheer surpassed the front-runner on the final, 13th ballot. He won by less than 2 percentage points.

All along, Scheer’s campaign manager, Hamish Marshall, had been confident in a mathematical “path to victory,” he repeatedly said at the time. It was better, Marshall had insisted, not to underestimate this guy.

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Potter, who has worked with Scheer since 2011, says Scheer has never come across as hellbent on becoming a world leader. But, as she puts it, “Every kid who laces up a pair of skates dreams of playing in the NHL.”

In his first two years as leader, Scheer neither showcased any particular star power nor revealed any debilitating political weaknesses. He allowed other Conservative members of Parliament to outshine him on issues such as immigration and finance. In Parliament, he railed against budgetary deficits and the federal carbon tax, sometimes facing accusations of misinforming the public by omitting details about the rollout of the tax.

More than anything else, Scheer tried to exploit the chinks in Trudeau’s armor, preparing him for his current election battle with the prime minister. Early this year, Scheer demanded Trudeau’s resignation over allegations that he had inappropriately pressured his former attorney general to help the Montreal company SNC-Lavalin avoid a criminal prosecution. During the campaign, Scheer has continued to attack Trudeau for the “SNC-Lavalin affair,” as it’s colloquially known, as well as for the blackface scandal.

To beat Trudeau, Scheer will have to attract undecided centrist voters. Although he is open about his personal devotion to Catholicism, and his private social conservatism was an important factor in his rise to leadership, more recently Scheer has tried—sometimes unsuccessfully—to downplay his social views. He is frequently asked about abortion; he opposes it but has long said he doesn’t legislate accordingly. Still, there remains no legal framework for abortion in Canada, and there are deep, if mostly unfounded, suspicions on the left that a future Conservative Party will be tempted to follow the examples of Georgia or Missouri. And in August, after a Liberal politician dug up a 2005 speech Scheer gave opposing same-sex marriage, which was legalized in Canada that year, Scheer struggled to coherently answer reporters’ questions about how his views have changed and why he, unlike other Canadian politicians, is unwilling to march in a pride parade. Scheer has responded by saying he supports LGBTQ rights in other ways, and that same-sex marriage is settled law in Canada.

Just as prevalent as the fears around a hidden socially conservative agenda are fears of right-wing populism and, in a country that prides itself on multiculturalism, a vein of anti-immigrant sentiment mirroring that in Europe and the United States. Marshall, the man now running Scheer’s federal campaign, built the campaign-based fundraising platform for the far-right media outfit, The Rebel, when it was founded in 2015. He and other Conservatives disowned the platform in 2017, as it faced criticism for sympathetic coverage of white supremacist protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, but not before the site began publishing blatant Islamophobia. Marshall insists he was not involved on the editorial side.

In July 2018, under Scheer, a Conservative social media account tweeted an image of what appeared to be a black man walking through a broken border fence. The party pulled the ad, yet there were lingering questions about the intentions behind it. And in the lead-up to the election, the Conservative Party let go of several candidates for Parliament for inappropriate comments they had made in the past (though such snafus have played out across the political spectrum).

Conservative staffers, including some who bemoan the impression that social progressives are unwelcome in the party, reject that there has been any intentional attempt to nod to Trump-style racism. And Scheer has repudiated white supremacy. “I find the notion that one’s race, religion, gender or sexual orientation would make anyone in any way superior or inferior to anybody else absolutely repugnant,” he said during an immigration-themed speech earlier this year.

It helps the Conservatives’ cause that, late last year, Bernier decided to strike out on his own, forming what would become a Canadian equivalent of the immigration-skeptic fringe parties on Europe’s far right, the People’s Party. Now, Conservatives can point to Bernier’s party as a more obvious home for those with anti-immigrant views.

More recently, Scheer’s own record has emerged as a challenge mid-campaign. His claim to have worked in the private sector as an insurance broker before entering politics was recently complicated by a Globe and Mail report that he was never licensed to do so. According to his campaign, Scheer had been nearing full accreditation before he left that industry, after less than a year. More recently, the Globe and Mail revealed that Scheer is a dual Canadian-American citizen by birth, though he was born and raised in Canada. His campaign says he is in the process of renouncing the U.S. citizenship, but opponents were quick to point out Scheer’s past criticism of a former governor general for holding a dual citizenship. Trudeau’s top adviser, Gerald Butts, lashed out on Twitter, invoking Trump: “Maybe he’s telling the truth that he never voted in the US,” Butts tweeted of Scheer, with a shrug emoji. “But do you doubt how he’d vote if he did?”

Scheer’s image as a run-of-the-mill middle-class father is somewhat complicated by the fact that his young family has benefited from the salary and housing support that came with his positions in the House of Commons, including living in official residences. Some of his personal interests, like fiscal policy, world history and word etymology, are hard to square with the everyman persona, too. During a fire alarm on Parliament Hill a few years ago, Potter remembers overhearing Scheer’s casual small talk with another member of Parliament; they weren’t talking about the weather, but about their favorite Canadian founding fathers.

On the whole, Conservative Party sources report being confident that no real skeletons—or old blackface photos—are in Scheer’s closet. “I never once was concerned about looking backward, as the prime minister is right now,” said a senior Conservative source who was not authorized to speak on the record.

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Scheer’s strengths, those around him say, include his decentralized, deliberative decision-making, his willingness to listen to a variety of points of view and his desire to focus on policies that are broadly supported by his base. “He said from the day he ran for leader,” Potter recounts, “‘Let’s put all the issues conservatives agree with on a whiteboard. Let’s put the few on a whiteboard we don’t agree on. Why are we talking about those?’”

Underpinning his conservatism is a staunch belief in the Canadian Constitution and an admiration for politicians such as Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. But Scheer has proved, for the most part, a pragmatist. Internal polling and cross-country door-knocking have showed Conservative strategists that Canadians are worried about the cost of living. Affordability is thus the overwhelming theme of the Conservative election campaign, including tax cuts and boutique tax credits, like for putting kids in sports or taking public transit. Budget cuts are also on the table. Scheer proposes to cut back foreign aid, remove business subsidies that constitute “corporate welfare,” and create a “national energy corridor” for oil, gas, telecommunications and hydroelectricity.

Scheer has criticized budgetary deficits under Trudeau’s leadership, and observers await a costed platform that explains how Scheer himself would arrive at balance. “A lot of his fiscal credibility is going to ride on whether they have a realistic plan to balance the budget,” says Aaron Wudrick, executive director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, which advocates for smaller government.

On climate change, Conservatives, who want to reestablish Canada as an oil and gas leader, have thin offerings. They would scrap Trudeau’s carbon tax; they maintain a commitment to the Paris climate accord targets from 2015, but they don’t yet have a detailed vision for achieving them. On foreign policy, Scheer wants to amp up support to Ukraine, sanction Iran and recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

And then there’s Trump. Only about 1 in 5 Canadians approve of the American president, several polls have shown. Almost nothing in Canadian politics is as clear-cut as that. Liberals have questioned how cozy a Conservative prime minister would get with Trump. Scheer, meanwhile, has criticized Trudeau for not standing up to Trump enough in the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement. “It’s very clear that in the last few hours Donald Trump just ran the table on him and spoon-fed him concession after concession, and he just capitulated and took it all because he had left himself in such a weak position,” Scheer told reporters on his campaign plane last month. But he has said he would ratify the deal as it stands now, rather than reopen negotiations.

If the 2019 Canadian election ends up being a referendum on a smarmy celebrity prime minister fallen from grace, the Tories could do worse than a pleasant-seeming guy who has been criticized for smiling too much and seeming too milquetoast. “He is the least alike politician to Justin Trudeau that you can find right now,” said the senior Conservative source. “People don’t like politicians. You look for the thing that’s different—fundamentally different. It gives us the absolute best chance to win.”

If Canadians are embarrassed at how hard the entire world has recently cringed at Trudeau, then those close to Scheer figure he should shine as a man of moral backbone. “If he gets sent to a G-7 meeting, nobody’s going to be snickering behind his back about dressing up in blackface or dressing up in Indian costumes or whatever else comes out,” says Lisa Raitt, the Conservatives’ deputy leader. “What would you rather be going in with? ‘He’s a nice guy. He’s diplomatic. I think we can work with him.’ Or: ‘Get a load of this guy. Why does he keep dressing up?’”

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