Analysis

Patrick Brown supporters could sway Ontario PC leadership race

Patrick Brown is no longer in the running to replace himself as Ontario PC leader, but his thousands of supporters could be a crucial factor in who wins on Saturday.

Several candidates who endorsed Brown now backing Christine Elliott, but most have stayed neutral

The PC leadership race was triggered by Patrick Brown's resignation in January. The new leader will be announced on Saturday. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

Patrick Brown is no longer in the running to replace himself as Ontario PC leader, but his supporters could be a crucial factor in determining who wins the party's top job on Saturday.

Brown had the public endorsement of two MPPs and 17 PC candidates during his short-lived entry into the leadership race. His campaign officials suggested he had thousands of party members on his side as well. 

Those Brown supporters now face a choice. Do they sit out the vote? Or do they choose among the four remaining leadership candidates to try to influence the direction their party takes, with the provincial election now less than three months away? 

"The Patrick Brown loyalists can have a tremendous influence," said Haldimand-Norfolk MPP Toby Barrett. He was Brown's staunchest supporter in the PC caucus, but has now endorsed Doug Ford. 

"There are a tremendous number of Patrick Brown loyalists out there, and in my view they will determine the results of this vote," said Barrett in an interview Wednesday with CBC News. 

Only four of the 17 candidates who had publicly backed Brown's leadership have come out with new endorsements, all of them throwing their support to Christine Elliott. They are Goldie Ghamari (running in Carleton), Karin Howard (Ottawa South) Mohammad Latif (Windsor-Tecumseh) and Derek Parks (Thunder Bay-Superior North). 

Another Brown supporter now with Elliott is Sault Ste Marie MPP Ross Romano. He says he believes there was "fairly widespread support" for Brown in northern Ontario.

"Patrick had made a very significant impact on northern Ontario during his first leadership race," said Romano in an interview Wednesday with CBC News.

But whether these endorsements will swing Brown's former supporters to the Elliott camp remains to be seen.

Some from Brown's team blame Elliott backer Randy Hillier for torpedoing Brown's comeback bid. Hillier filed a complaint to the integrity commissioner alleging that Brown received gifts of travel and had sources of income that he'd failed to disclose. The integrity commissioner is now investigating.  

"I'd hate to see any [Brown loyalists] join a team that maybe has people associated with it who were instrumental in taking out their favourite son," said Barrett.   

Ontario PC leadership candidates, left to right, Tanya Granic Allen, Caroline Mulroney, Christine Elliott and Doug Ford pose for a photo after participating in a debate in Ottawa on Wednesday, Feb. 28. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, no candidate who endorsed Brown has thrown support to Caroline Mulroney or Tanya Granic Allen.

Mulroney urged Brown to stay out of the race, then once he was in, called on him to withdraw. 

The harshest criticism of Brown among the four candidates came from Granic Allen. She slammed his stance on the Wynne government's sex-ed curriculum, her top issue. She is the only leadership candidate who has definitively said she will not allow Brown to run under the party banner if she becomes leader. 

"The three of you sat idly by while the party has been run into the ground by Patrick Brown," Granic Allen said to her rivals during last week's leadership debate. She said she opposes Brown being a PC candidate "not because of the allegations of sexual misconduct against him, but because of the corrupt manner he has run the party." 

Given all that, it's hard to see many solid Brown supporters casting their ballots in favour of Granic Allen. 

According to multiple sources affiliated with the party and with different campaigns, more than 190,000 people were signed up as PC party members in mid-February, making them eligible to vote in the race.

However, only 70,000 have verified their identity, a step that must be taken before voting. The head of the party's leadership election organizing committee, Hartley Lefton, said 44,189 members had cast their online ballots as of Wednesday evening. The voting closes on Friday.

The party rejected calls Wednesday evening by Ford, Mulroney and Granic Allen to extend the race by a week to ensure all members are eligible to vote. 

The winner will be announced at a hotel in Markham on Saturday afternoon. The event will be broadcast live on CBC News Network and streamed live on cbc.ca.  

About the Author

Mike Crawley

Provincial Affairs Reporter

Mike Crawley is provincial affairs reporter in Ontario for CBC News. He has won awards for his reporting on the eHealth spending scandal and flaws in Ontario's welfare-payment computer system. Before joining the CBC in 2005, Mike filed stories from 19 countries in Africa as a freelance journalist and worked as a newspaper reporter in B.C. Follow him on Twitter @CBCQueensPark