Doug Ford and Christine Elliott, both running for the leadership of the Ontario Progressive Conservative party, have been family friends for a long time. Ford’s late father, also named Doug, and Elliott’s late husband, former finance minister Jim Flaherty, were both members of Mike Harris’s PC caucus in the mid-1990s.
And those who saw Flaherty choking back tears talking about the substance abuse struggles of Ford’s brother Rob, the former Toronto mayor, won’t soon forget the genuine affection Flaherty had for a flawed but still good friend — an illustration of how close the two families have long been.
So it was with considerable shock that onlookers watched Doug Ford, midway through the Ottawa PC leaders’ debate last week, attack his good friend Christine Elliott. Ford wondered “which Christine Elliott” Tory party members were being asked to vote for, then argued that Elliott had, on a number of issues, changed her position for political convenience (the sex-ed curriculum, the proposed carbon tax, etc.).
Elliott looked stung by the attack, but returned fire with a strong defence of her views. Ford later apologized after the debate, but then repeated the same charges in a series of e-blast fundraising notes.
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The whole episode raised a different question: Which Doug Ford are the tens of thousands of Tory party members being asked to vote for?
I ask, because most of the feedback I got on Ford’s early campaign performances was positive: behind the scenes, PC officials were delighted that Ford’s interviews with the party’s provincial nominations committee — the group that vets every prospective leadership candidate — were solid.
Several members of that committee told me they were unexpectedly pleased at how responsible Ford had sounded: he’d pledged to be loyal to the new leader if it wasn’t him, promised to run on the platform (whatever that might be), and vowed to be a team player.
The committee members also noted how forcefully yet calmly Ford had performed in the leadership debate that aired in mid-February on TVO; some even joked that the candidate must have taken a triple-dose of sleeping pills before the engagement to ensure there’d be no violent eruptions.
When I asked Ford during that debate whether he could guarantee his potential premiership wouldn’t feature the chaos that marked his brother Rob’s Toronto mayoralty, Ford answered calmly and suggested that his previous erratic behaviour could be chalked up to “sticking up for my brother every time.”
So, for the “Never Ford” forces in the party, this new and improved Doug Ford was a welcome sight.
But the question now is, has that Doug Ford retreated? And is the former model reemerging?
Although Ford might have apologized to Elliott after the Ottawa debate, that hasn’t stopped his campaign from unleashing several new rounds of blistering emails attacking the person he sees as his main competition.
And perhaps to appeal to social Conservatives, who may be inclined to park their first-ballot leadership votes with Tanya Granic Allen, Ford has also brought the abortion debate back into focus. He has wondered aloud how teenagers can possibly have abortions without parental notification — something that will resonate with many in the Tory party but could turn off more moderate general-election voters.
Angus Reid today released some fresh polling data that will be unwelcome news for the Ford campaign: it indicates that if Elliott were to win the leadership on Saturday, the number of potential Tory voters would increase significantly. Among voters who would “certainly consider” voting PC if Elliott were leader, the former MPP has a 43 per cent approval rating and only an 11 per cent disapproval rating. But with Ford as leader, the big blue tent shrinks considerably: Ford has only a 23 per cent approval rating and a 56 per cent disapproval rating among those who say that would “certainly consider” voting PC.
Let’s say this for Doug Ford: while no one has accused him of having his late brother’s ability to connect as powerfully to the average voter, the fact is, he ran for Toronto mayor in 2014 after his brother dropped out of the race due to his failing health and still managed to get 330,000 votes — good for nearly 34 per cent, just six points behind the eventual winner, John Tory.
And despite being a new entrant into provincial politics, Ford has managed to sign up thousands of new PC party members — who have put him within striking distance of winning — in relatively short order.
The Ford campaign probably thinks it’s running behind right now, given its full-court press to extend voting in the leadership contest for several more days and set decision day back another week. (Late last night, the party announced that that’s not on: voting will cease at noon Friday, and the results will still be announced Saturday afternoon.)
All the smart people watching this race say it’s Elliott’s to lose. Mind you, those same smart people said that in 2009 and again in 2015, and Elliott showed badly in both contests, losing first to Tim Hudak and then to Patrick Brown.
The numbers might show that Ford doesn’t play well with most Ontarians. But Saturday’s contest doesn’t involve most Ontarians. It involves tens of thousands of conservatives, a good number of whom really like the brand of politics Ford is pitching.
Saturday will be fascinating.
Starting at 1:30 p.m. on Saturday, March 10, follow The Agenda on Twitter for coverage of the Progressive Conservative leadership race results.