With Doug Ford joining PC leadership race, all bets are off

Your mom's basement is admittedly an unlikely venue to announce your ambition to become premier of Ontario, but anybody who underestimates Doug Ford's chances to win the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party leadership does so at their peril.

Compressed time frame, strict spending limits mean anyone could win Ontario PC party top job

Former Toronto city councillor Doug Ford announced his intention to run for leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party in a news conference at his mother's home in Toronto. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

Your mom's basement is a rather inauspicious venue to announce your ambition to become premier of Ontario, but anybody who underestimates Doug Ford's chances to win the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party leadership does so at their peril. 

Ford declared his candidacy on Monday to lead a party in deep turmoil following the resignation of leader Patrick Brown over allegations of sexual misconduct.

Ford is quickly trying to position himself as the populist choice in the race, the outsider, railing against the elites.

"Folks, make no mistake about it," he said in his short statement from the basement of his mother's Etobicoke house. "The elites of this party, the ones who have shut out the grassroots, do not want me in this race. But I'm here to give a voice to the hard-working taxpayers of this province, people who have been ignored for far too long."

Ford's message might just resonate with a good chunk of the PC membership. And don't forget Ford's message already has proven popular with no small number of people in Toronto.

When he stepped into the shoes of his better-known brother Rob Ford to run for mayor in 2014, he came second but won 20 of the city's 44 wards. He trounced John Tory in Etobicoke, Scarborough and North York, the key parts of Toronto that the PCs must swing their way to form a majority provincial government. It`s not a stretch to think he could replicate that success in the 905, the crucial battleground of Ontario politics, and of course in traditional Tory strongholds too. 

Some political observers are already writing off Ford's candidacy. 

But here are three key reasons why Ford's run can't be dismissed as irrelevant: 

1. Short time frame

Usually a leadership race is all about who works the hardest to sign up the greatest number of new members. But the PC membership is already at a record high 200,000, and the race will last only a few weeks. It means the winner will likely be the person who proves most popular with that existing membership base. 

2. New fundraising limits

The leadership race must abide by Ontario's new, much stricter, rules on political fundraising. Corporations and unions cannot donate and no person can give more than $1,200 to any leadership candidate. It reduces the potential for huge disparities in fundraising between candidates. In particular, this reins in what would have been one of Caroline Mulroney's huge advantages: the fundraising juggernaut of her father, former prime minister Brian Mulroney. 

Caroline Mulroney, daughter of former prime minister Brian Mulroney, is the Ontario PC candidate for York-Simcoe and is being touted as a possible party leadership contender. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

3. Room on the right

There has been much grumbling among ideological conservatives who felt that Patrick Brown took the party too far to the centre. None of the other names being touted as possible candidates seem likely to push the party to a more hard-line conservative stance, with the possible exception of Monte McNaughton. If McNaughton declines to run, Ford could position himself to win over both the populist side of the PC membership and the Tories who considered Brown to be Liberal-lite. 

None of this is to say Ford will win. But all his opponents know that he will be a factor, if he qualifies to run. My sources are telling me the party will insist on a thorough vetting process for the leadership candidates, in the wake of the Brown allegations. Ford will have to open himself and his past up to some tough scrutiny from the party he wants to lead. 

There's also talk the party committee organizing the leadership race is considering a rule that all candidates must formally support the PC platform that's already been developed. Would Doug Ford actually commit to a carbon tax? When the platform was unveiled in November, Ford gave it a general thumbs up to reporters, but it is not clear if he embraces it wholly. 

The Ontario Progressive Conservative platform for the 2018 election features former party leader Patrick Brown prominently on its cover. Party officials insist that the policies in the platform still stand, despite Brown's resignation. (Mike Crawley/CBC)

Ford`s move to throw his hat in the ring truly means the race is on. His declaration effectively snuffs out any chance party officials will reverse the decision to hold a leadership contest, rumours of which were spreading in PC circles. 

Interim leader Vic Fedeli has also indicated he wants the permanent job. He will bring a significant amount of support from his caucus mates, but they only represent one-fifth of the ridings in the province, and the party's voting system gives equal weight to all 124 ridings.

Sources indicate that Caroline Mulroney has a campaign team at the ready. While she is an experienced lawyer and investment banker, the knock against her will be that she has never held elected office. The same critique applies to Rod Phillips, the former CEO of Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp. Sources say Phillips is considering a run, with backing from longtime PC bigwig Paul Godfrey.

Others who have not ruled out a run include former deputy PC leader Christine Elliott and Durham MP Erin O'Toole. The party executive is scheduled to decide the race rules on Wednesday. 

"Our party cannot go without a tested leader in this crucial time," Ford said Monday, revealing his tactics for challenging some of his potential opponents. "Right now, the party needs strong leadership, someone who's ready to clean up the mess and lead us into the June election."

Still reeling from Brown's abrupt departure, the PC party is rudderless. The campaign machinery that ought to be operating full-tilt is sitting idle. The staff who were running the show are now focused on allying themselves with would-be leadership contenders.  All the energy that ought to be focused solely on taking down Kathleen Wynne and the Liberals is being spent on internal battles.

It'll be nearly two months before the PCs have someone in place to make the run for premier. If that person ends up being Doug Ford, remember that it all began in his mom's basement. 


Mike Crawley

Senior reporter

Mike Crawley covers provincial affairs in Ontario for CBC News. He began his career as a newspaper reporter in B.C., filed stories from 19 countries in Africa as a freelance journalist, then joined the CBC in 2005. Mike was born and raised in Saint John, N.B.