Is there anyone in the province of Ontario who was more furious watching the election returns last night than Doug Ford?
Many have speculated that, for the past six weeks, the Conservative party has more or less begged the Ontario premier to keep his head down. The conventional wisdom was that Ford was deeply unpopular and could only be an albatross around Andrew Scheer’s neck in the province where federal elections are won or lost.
But polls suggest that the Conservative leader simply didn’t adequately connect with large swaths of Ontario voters, particularly women, and, as a result, the breakthrough the party needed across the province never happened.
The Liberals took 41.5 per cent of the total vote in Ontario last night. The Conservatives captured 33.2 per cent. That’s hardly a rout. But the Liberal vote proved to be dramatically more efficient, giving the governing party a 79 to 36 victory in the seat count. A weakened, damaged Liberal party astonishingly lost only one seat compared to 2015. The NDP took six seats.
No doubt, at Queen’s Park, conservatives are now wondering whether the results might have been different if Ford had been let out of his cage and allowed to campaign gung-ho for his federal cousins.
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Interestingly, during the CBC’s coverage last night, we saw two people who agree on virtually nothing agree that the Conservative party strategists blew it in the most vote-rich part of the country.
“It was a mistake putting Doug Ford into the witness-protection program,” said Bob Rae, Ontario’s 21st premier, who suggested that Ford could have helped the populist wing of the Conservative cause had he been able to participate in Campaign 2019.
Kory Teneycke, who ran Ford’s successful 2018 election run and previously worked for former prime minister Stephen Harper, agreed that there just hadn’t been enough enthusiasm for Scheer in Ontario and that, if Ford had been allowed to contribute, that would have been different.
Is it possible that everyone got that calculation wrong? Certainly, Justin Trudeau felt that Ford was enough of a piñata that he couldn’t resist whacking him at every turn. So the Liberals clearly thought Ford was dead weight on the Conservative campaign.
Coincidentally, the folks in the Conservative backrooms seem to have felt the same way. Scheer couldn’t even bring himself to mention Ford’s name throughout the campaign. And even Ford’s people appeared to buy into the notion that the premier could only be a drag on the federal party: the Ontario government insisted on adjourning the legislative assembly until after the election was over.
Sixteen months ago, the Tories in Ontario managed to win 76 seats with Ford at the top of the ticket. It’s true that Ford’s first year in power was widely perceived to be a disaster. But since Ford’s chief of staff Dean French was ousted and the party started acting in a more traditionally Progressive Conservative way, the Ontario government has been more popular. One wonders whether federal Conservative fortunes might have been improved last night had the Ontario premier (rather than — or maybe in addition to — the Alberta premier) been let loose on the hustings. Maybe not in downtown Toronto. But, given how poorly the Conservative party fared in parts of Ontario where they should have shown better (Ajax, Aurora, Brampton, Burlington, Milton, Mississauga, Newmarket, Pickering, Richmond Hill, Uxbridge, Whitby), it’s reasonable to ask whether hiding Ford was smart strategy.
Yes, it’s possible that the Conservatives would have done even worse in Ontario had Ford been allowed to campaign. But it’s also the case that, during a writ period in which the prime minister had to contend with controversies such as blackface/brownface, SNC-Lavalin, and fewer sunny days than last time, the Conservatives were able to pick up only three more seats in Ontario. The Liberals were vulnerable. But Scheer and Co. couldn’t exploit it in Ontario as they did in much of the rest of the country. Even in Markham–Stouffville, where former cabinet minister Jane Philpott captured a respectable 22.5 per cent of the votes as an independent, the Liberals with former Ontario health minister Helena Jaczek were strong enough to win the seat anyway.
“Just hating on the other guy just isn’t enough,” Teneycke said, suggesting that the Conservatives hadn’t put enough positive things in the window.
Political scientists will debate whether Ford’s absence on the hustings affected the enthusiasm in conservative circles. One thing I suspect we will not debate is whether the premier will stay quiet from now on. I’ve been told by numerous Queen’s Park sources that it’s been killing Ford to have to bite his tongue for the past six weeks.
Those days are surely gone.