Advice for Ford from strategists: stick to economics, don't poke the social conservative bear

When it comes to hot button social conservative issues like abortion and sexual education in schools, some Conservative strategists and PC members are advising their newly-minted leader to tread carefully.

Ford's stances on abortion and sex ed curriculum have strategists and PC members watching closely

Doug Ford, newly elected as leader of the Ontario PC party, has about three months to win over the Ontario electorate. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

When it comes to hot-button social conservative issues like abortion and sexual education in schools, some Ontario Progressive Conservative party members and Conservative strategists are advising their newly-minted leader to tread carefully.

Doug Ford, brother of late Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, stepped into the role of PC leader following a chaotic party convention on Saturday.

Ford has promised to repeal Ontario's sex-ed curriculum and has suggested parents should be consulted before minors are able to access abortion, positions which set him apart from Christine Elliott and Caroline Mulroney, who were moderate leadership hopefuls.

But Jaime Watt, the executive chairman at Navigator Ltd. and a former advisor to the PC party, has a grim warning for Ford's campaign.

"I think we’ve got an understanding in the province on how to deal with abortion, and that should be left alone," said Jaime Watt. (CBC)

"Every single time the Conservatives muck around these socially conservative issues, they get destroyed by the Liberals," he said. "It's dumb, rookie politics."

It's the economy!

Though socially conservative positions may have bagged him the leadership, said Watt, Ford now needs to make a hard pivot toward issues like the economy and respecting taxpayers' money.   

So far, he seems to be hearing the message.

"I'm not far-right," he said Monday while being questioned by reporters about his views on abortion and sex-ed. "I'm not. That is not at the top of my priority list."

Ford disputed that he was a far-right candidate while speaking with the media on Monday. (CBC)

"I'm going to focus on the finances of this province," he went on.

Angela Wright, a Conservative strategist, said Ford now faces a major challenge: to show social conservatives, recently brought back into the fold after Brown's more moderate tenure, that "there's still a home for you in this party" — and appeal to a wider swath of Ontario.

"What it comes down to is explaining to Ontarians that this is more of a freedom of speech issue or a freedom of conscience issue," she said.

LGBTory will be 'watching carefully'

But some PC members won't be so easily swayed.

Eric Lorenzen, vice-president of communications for LGBTory, an advocacy group that advised Patrick Brown on the sex-ed curriculum and marched alongside him Toronto's Pride Parade, told CBC Toronto they'll be "watching carefully" to see what Ford does in the next three months.

"My concern as a gay Conservative is I have worries about the people that Ford has attracted to his campaign," said Lorenzen.

People like Tanya Granic Allen, who threw her support behind Ford after she was knocked out of the leadership race, "don't have the best interests of the LGBT community at heart," he said.

'Most LGBT Conservatives, they’re Conservatives for a reason,' said Lorenzen. 'Most of us are going to be open-minded, we’re going to look at what happens.' (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

LGBTory fully supports the sex-ed curriculum, which includes components about tolerance, body positivity, and LGBT acceptance.

"To actually repeal the entire thing is problematic," said Lorenzen.

But he said his group will try to have an open mind.

"Most of us don't support the party because of it's LGBT platform. We support it because of its economic platform," he said.

Wynne says she'll stay the course

Meanwhile, Premier Kathleen Wynne claims Ford's jump into the race hasn't impacted her strategy in the slightest.  

"No matter who we are fighting against, it is always about who we are fighting for and what we are fighting for… it didn't matter who the leader of the Conservatives was going to be," she said on Monday.

Wynne said that though she's been clear that she and Ford disagree and that there will be a "stark choice in June," her platform had little in common with any of the potential PC leaders.

When a reporter asked if she thought Ford's presence in the race would make the campaign more "belligerent or aggressive," Wynne said that she thought there was still a "strong chance" for a "very important and fundamental debate about government" over the next three months.

Omar Khan, vice-president for engagement with the Ontario Liberal Party and vice-president for public affairs with Hill+Knowlton strategies, says Liberals need to stay the course to win. (CBC)

"It's clear that Ontario Liberals are going to be going into the election campaign as underdogs… that's where Kathleen Wynne is comfortable," said Omar Khan, vice-president for engagement with the Ontario Liberal Party.

Khan says Wynne should push Ford on issues like his "concerning" stance on abortion.

"It's not the type of progressive Ontario values that are shared by the vast majority of Ontarians," he said.