Ontario's Conservative Party — on the road to power — has reached yet another fork in that road. Do they move to the left or take another hard-right turn?
Members of the party begin casting their votes Sunday, with another opportunity Thursday. The winner and the future direction of the party will be announced May 9th in Toronto.
When this leadership race began to replace the twice-failed Tim Hudak, the list of candidates seemed endless. And the names of some very prominent Tories were being talked up — the likes of then-federal cabinet minister John Baird and current cabinet minister Lisa Raitt.
At the provincial level, a number of people looked at the race. Some decided to sit it out. Others jumped in and later jumped out. Lacking the "dollars and delegates," Vic Fedeli, Lisa MacLeod and Monte McNaughton all left the race.
And that left the Tories with a clear and unmistakable choice: the party's establishment candidate, Christine Elliott, or the party's federal upstart, MP Patrick Brown.
Elliott is the veteran, the 60-year-old widow of the still much-beloved former federal finance minister Jim Flaherty. The mother of triplet sons. The woman who would take her party back to what former premier Bill Davis called the political "mushy middle" — an approach that kept him in the premier's office for 14 years.
Brown, who was first elected federally in Barrie in 2006, is 38 and single. He is a social Conservative — opposed to abortion and reluctant to talk publicly about issues such as gay rights.
His time on Parliament Hill has been undistinguished. He's had no important committee chairmanships, no appointments as a parliamentary secretary.
But he did make one, as it turns out, very good choice to head the Canada-India Parliamentary Association — a post that put him in touch with Ontario's growing South Asian community. Now they've thanked him for his work by buying party memberships in large numbers. That support may well help propel Brown into the leader's job.
Elliott entered this race as the odds-on favourite — backed by a wide swath of the existing Conservative caucus. Brown, the unknown candidate, was all but laughed off as a serious challenger. But as they say, that was then and this is now.
Brown is in a very solid position going into this week's voting. He is now backed by a couple of party stalwarts: Postmedia CEO Paul Godfrey and Derek Burney, who served as Brian Mulroney's chief of staff and a former ambassador to the U.S.
Both have lamented a series of election losses and believe Brown can give the party — in the words of a Toronto Sun headline, "a good shake."
The tipoff that Elliott is in trouble came a couple of weeks ago, signalled by her increasing and often nasty personal attacks on Brown.
She now talks about the race as being about "character and caring," describing her opponent as a (provincially) untested candidate and as someone who can only offer the party "a life lived as a politician," who has accomplished "little of significance," and who has "no substantive record."
Harsh words — ignored by Brown — that put in doubt a coming together of the party after the voting, as it then prepares for its next challenge — the 2018 election and a chance to defeat Kathleen Wynne.
The premier herself won't engage, publicly or privately, in discussions about the PC leadership race. But it is telling that many Liberals will whisper to you that their real challenge would come from Elliott and not Brown.
However, the party of political icons Leslie Frost, John Robarts, Bill Davis and even Mike Harris — with his back-to-back majority governments — may be about to become the party of the underestimated Patrick Brown.