Opinion: Why Doug Ford has a shot at taking Tories into election

Don’t count Doug Ford out.

The former Toronto councillor is dismissed by many as a long shot in the Ontario Tory leadership race.

He is said to be too right-wing, too angry, and too controversial.

Most Ontarians know him only as the brother of former Toronto mayor Rob Ford, a man who, until his death in 2016, was treated in the media as a populist buffoon.

The smart money says that if Doug Ford becomes Progressive Conservative leader next month, the party’s chances of ousting Premier Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals from government will diminish considerably.

Who knows? The smart money may be right.

But that doesn’t mean the Tories won’t choose Ford anyway.

His outsider campaign has resonance within a party that has long been split – between left and right, between urbanites and rural voters, between true believers and compromisers.

When Ford rails against what he calls the elites, many Conservative voters quietly nod in agreement.

“Make no mistake,” Ford thundered when announcing his candidacy last week. “The elites of this party, the ones who have shut out the grassroots, do not want me in this race.”

In that, he is almost certainly correct. The PC nabobs do not want Ford chosen as leader. They would prefer either political neophyte Caroline Mulroney or former MPP Christine Elliott.

Going into the June election, both are seen as safer choices.

But the party has the distressing habit of ignoring the nabobs and making unsafe choices.

In 1990, it defied the then Red Tory old guard and chose Mike Harris. Harris tanked in the subsequent general election but recovered to win two back-to-back majority governments.

In 2004, the party made the safe choice of picking John Tory as leader. He lost the next election.

In 2009, the party chose Tim Hudak, a Harris acolyte, over the more centrist Christine Elliott. Hudak lost two elections. But the party rank and file were undeterred. In 2015, they elected as leader another controversial outsider – Patrick Brown.

Once again, Elliott, campaigning as the safe centrist, lost.

What will happen this time is almost impossible to predict. Polling so far is inconclusive.

As well, the complex voting process – which involves members casting online, preferential ballots weighted in favour of ridings with low turnouts – makes predictions difficult.

So far none of the candidates has said much that would substantively differentiate them. Elliott and Ford oppose the imposition of a carbon tax as called for in the party’s election platform. Mulroney is vague but has said that if she wins she might rethink the entire platform.

The real difference is tone. Ford rages. The other two do not.

Ford’s main policy pronouncement to date is that, “It’s time to clean up this mess.”

Which, while not specific, is at least evocative.

In a strange way, that rage might be Ford’s greatest asset in this race. His detractors may regard him as a thug and a bully. He lacks the disarming vulnerability of his brother Rob. But at least he has passion.

By comparison, his competitors sound almost robotic. Mulroney in particular is playing it safe, avoiding uncontrolled contact with the press and relying on name recognition (her father is a former prime minister) to carry her campaign.

Elliott, meanwhile, has provided no convincing rationale for her decision to seek the leadership – except that this time she might win.

But Ford? He’s furious. He rants. He raves. He says he will turn the whole thing on its head.

For many Conservative voters desperate to see the demolition of Wynne’s Liberal legacy, this might just appeal.

Thomas Walkom is a national affairs writer.

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