Will an Outspoken Reality TV Star Replace … Justin Trudeau?!

Shark Tank’s Kevin O’Leary says he’s no Donald Trump. But in some ways his campaign to lead Canada’s Conservative Party is even more unlikely.

Kevin O’Leary
Kevin O’Leary attends the American Music Awards on Nov. 22, 2015, in Los Angeles.

Mark Davis/Getty Images

For all Justin Trudeau’s heartthrob popularity among U.S. liberals, in Canada, the rules of political gravity have caught up with the prime minister. He’s now gone through a couple of scandals—cash-for-access fundraisers, abandoning a major campaign promise on electoral reform—and his approval rating has fallen to 45 percent, his lowest since taking office. Trudeau would likely still win an election if it were held this year, but he’s vulnerable.

Canadians go to the polls next in 2019, and the Conservative Party is trying to figure out the best way to counter the youthful PM. One idea is to field a sturdy and competent candidate, someone a little bit boring. This would underscore a main attack line they’ve been trying out for years, that Trudeau is unserious, in over his head when it comes to the actual work of governing.

Or Conservatives could fight flash with flash—could field a candidate who speaks to millennial voters, among whom the Conservatives lost badly in the last election. This could mean nominating another celebrity politician, someone who is adroit with a selfie and comfortable on camera.

If the polls are correct, the next leader of Canada’s Conservative Party—the new leader of the opposition, Trudeau’s main antagonist, the person best positioned to replace him in the 2019 election—could be a reality TV star with no governing experience. A man who only works in Canada part time and disagrees with the party on many issues. A man who does not speak French, one of the country’s official languages, and picks Twitter fights with other Canadian politicians for no good reason. It could be Mr. Wonderful himself, Kevin O’Leary.

O’Leary’s been labeled a “Canadian Donald Trump,” and there are similarities. As a panelist on the ABC investment show Shark Tank, he’s risen to prominence by shooting down aspiring entrepreneurs with colorful, humiliating language. A large portion of his income these days comes from branding; his name is attached to everything from wine to toilet lights. But O’Leary is quick to point out their differences, particularly around nationalism. “I’m actually born from Lebanese and Irish immigrants,” he told CityNews when asked about the Trump comparisons. “If there were walls in Canada, I wouldn’t exist.”

O’Leary announced his plan to run for Conservative Party leadership in January—conveniently, one day after the party’s French-language debate. While other candidates for the job are attending town hall meetings in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, and Trois-Rivières, Québec, O’Leary has taken a very different tack: He’s been spending a lot of time in the United States, and he hasn’t exactly been hiding it. He’s continued starring on Shark Tank, held a debate with Mark Cuban on CNBC, and sold O’Leary-branded wine on a shopping network. He’s been absent from many campaign events and has only been part of three debates so far. (There have been 11 since November.)

For its part, the O’Leary campaign insists the candidate’s home is actually in Canada. “The assertion by some that he is a ‘part-time’ resident is ridiculous and just wrong,” wrote Ari Laskin, O’Leary’s press secretary, in an email. “He moved to his current home in Toronto in 2010. When Mr. O’Leary wins, he will continue to reside in Canada.” In a 2014 article in Boston magazine, however, O’Leary said his house in Boston was his favorite place to spend time. “I have homes in Toronto, Geneva, and other places, but Boston is home,” said pre-candidate O’Leary. He even listed Boston as home on his LinkedIn page, until a Canadian journalist pointed it out in January.

Wherever he lives, O’Leary won’t stop appearing on American television. “Part of the reason Mr. O’Leary is uniquely qualified to run as the leader is the media platform that he holds as a result of his time on Shark Tank,” wrote Laskin. “This has given Mr. O’Leary a large audience of Canadians, particularly entrepreneurs and millennials. … Every Conservative who wants to beat Justin Trudeau should really want him to keep this media platform.” He later clarified that O’Leary would give up the show voluntarily if he were elected prime minister, but not before.

In Canadian politics, being labeled “American” can be a kiss of death. In 2005, Harvard University professor Michael Ignatieff moved back to Canada after several decades. Though he became leader of the Liberal Party in 2009, he was dogged by Conservative attack ads calling him a carpetbagger and branding him with a sharp tagline: “He didn’t come back for you.”* The attacks stuck, and Ignatieff led the Liberals to their worst result ever in the 2011 election. A year and a half later, he returned to Harvard. Canadian op-ed writers have treated O’Leary with similar disdain so far. Andrew Coyne, a moderate conservative at the National Post, said O’Leary’s campaign shows an “open, brazen contempt” for “the party he lazily hopes to lead,” while Shannon Gormley at the Ottawa Citizen dubbed O’Leary’s bid “without precedent in the history of every democracy in the world.”

Nonetheless, Kevin O’Leary is the front-runner. Buoyed by name recognition, he’s polled between 21 and 31 percent with party members since entering the race, good enough for a real lead over his 13 rivals—including a regional French Canadian candidate and a dude in an Edmonton Oilers jersey. (The latter was Conservative fundraiser Rick Peterson, who is also running without any government experience.)

With such a cluttered field, no one has found enough oxygen to become the logical rival to O’Leary. In most polls, the second-place finisher is Maxime Bernier, a libertarian from Québec. While he served as the foreign affairs minister in Stephen Harper’s first Cabinet, he resigned one year in, after leaving sensitive documents at the house of his girlfriend, who had connections to the Hells Angels. (He later rejoined the Cabinet in a much smaller role.) Erin O’Toole, Andrew Scheer, and Lisa Raitt are well-regarded MPs with governing experience but not a ton of name recognition. And of course, there’s Kellie Leitch, the surgeon turned labor minister who is running a baldly nationalist campaign, promising a special “Canadian values test” for every new immigrant entering Canada. While she’s grabbing the headlines, her popularity took a hit earlier this month after the release of an unnerving, eight-minute Lynchian campaign video that went viral for the wrong reasons.

Despite a scattered field, most campaign officials I spoke to believe O’Leary is far from a lock. The party’s ranked ballot system means a winning candidate will need to reach 50 percent support using a combination of first-, second-, and (maybe) third- and fourth-place votes. This is not a good system for a divisive candidate. Many of the Conservatives I spoke to said either that they were planning to rank O’Leary first, or dead last. Many were turned off by his liberal stances on issues like abortion and transgender rights. The ballots are also regionally weighted, which means that while the Conservative Party is unpopular in Québec, O’Leary will need to do well there, a tall order given his lack of French. (He has promised to achieve fluency by 2019. Shark Tank entrepreneurs, start working on your translation machines!)

But while these vulnerabilities would have disqualified other candidates, O’Leary is seen as a front-runner. “O’Leary has strong polling, some indications he’s a good fundraiser, and all the other campaigns see him as the guy to attack,” said Éric Grenier, a Canadian poll watcher at the CBC. And a recent poll shows O’Leary might be the best positioned to beat Trudeau. The Liberals and O’Leary’s Conservatives would be virtually tied in a head-to-head matchup.

While O’Leary rejects comparisons to Trump, this one is true—if he wins, it will show Conservatives can overlook a lot of personal flaws and forgive a lot of policies they hate for a chance to win.

*Correction, March 14, 2017: This article originally misstated that Conservative attack ads against Ignatieff featured the tagline “He’s just not here for you.” The attack ad admonished: “He didn’t come back for you.” (Return.)