Big challenges ahead for Ontario PC leadership hopefuls in race to replace Patrick Brown

Candidates hoping to lead the Ontario PC party and have a good chance of being the next premier will inherit challenges caused by unprecedented turmoil in the organization.

Tight timelines, computer problems and membership questions will complicate race, experts say

The ouster of Ontario PC leader Patrick Brown over allegations of sexual misconduct has left the party scrambling to select a new leader in very short order before a June general election. (CBC)

With the rules of the race finally posted and candidates coming out of the shadows, observers say there are big challenges facing contenders for the leadership of a party reeling from a week of chaos, after Patrick Brown's sudden departure due to allegations of sexual misconduct.

Laure Paquette, an associate professor of political science at Lakehead University, says because of the tight timelines for the leadership race, certain candidates will have a head start.

"Someone who is well known, who is established, will have an advantage under this set of rules," she told CBC News. "The timelines are so short. They are selecting someone so close to the election that there won't be time for that person to become known."

Laure Paquette, an associate professor in the department of political science at Lakehead University, says whoever is chosen to lead the Ontario PCs could face challenges from those alleging irregularities due to electronic voting concerns and the party's membership list. (John Nistico)

The candidates who have declared so far all have strong name recognition. 

Christine Elliot, 62, was an accomplished Ontario MPP in her own right, a two-time Ontario PC leadership candidate and is now Ontario's patient ombudsman, but she was also married to the late Jim Flaherty, a former Ontario and federal finance minister. Caroline Mulroney, 43, who studied at Harvard and has a law degree from New York University, is the daughter of former prime minister Brian Mulroney. Doug Ford, 53, was a high-profile Toronto city councillor from 2010 to 2014 and the brother of the late Rob Ford, whose scandalous tenure as the city's mayor made international headlines.

So who will appeal to the most Ontario voters?

Christine Elliot, former MPP and widow of former federal finance minister Jim Flaherty, is a two-time PC leadership candidate. An Angus Reid poll suggests Elliott has high appeal among soft PC voters, but mainly from older respondents. (CBC)

"These types of factors are going weigh on the minds of Tory members," said Paquette, who points to a recent public opinion poll from the Angus Reid Institute that indicates Elliot and Mulroney have more appeal to soft PC voters than Ford.

The tight timeline between selecting a leader and a general election poses a problem in another way. 

Ontario PC president Jag Badwal says the party executive opted for electronic voting because it is the quickest way to pick a leader.

"We're going to have the electronic voting because of the shortage of time," Badwal said, adding that in the winter getting to a leadership convention can be a challenge. "This way you can vote from the comfort of your home."

Caroline Mulroney, daughter of former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, appeals to younger voters, according to an Angus Reid poll. But most of those voters are not part of the party’s base. (CBC)

As for the security and reliability of such systems, Badwal says the executive has few concerns.

"Some tweaks need to be done. I think the system is good; we have tested it again. We will have to make a decision at the next executive committee meeting what we can do to enhance that system," he said.

Interim leader Vic Fedeli, who says he'll attempt to fix what he describes as the "rot" in the party, says part of his mission is to investigate a possible hacking of the Ontario Progressive Conservative internal database, which contains a list of all its members.

"We have a computer system that we need to upgrade drastically to get us up to the 21st Century There are a lot of issues that have been put out there publicly regarding our membership numbers and statistics," he said. "I believe it's my job to leave the party in the best possible shape for the coming leader."

Former Toronto city councillor Doug Ford was the first declared candidate for the leadership of the Ontario PC Party. (CBC)

The party's membership list has grown dramatically since the 2014 provincial election — from some 10,000 members to more than 200,000 now.

But some in the party have raised doubts about that number, saying it's been inflated with a large number of "paper memberships." That could further complicate this leadership race, Paquette says.

"The problem is that if there is someone unhappy with the outcome, which is pretty likely since there hasn't been much party unity, If there's someone disgruntled then they will have more reason than usual to question the outcome," she said. "Someone who is unhappy will have good reason to say, 'I don't think this was fair.'"

The other big risk to candidates is the money they'll have to put on the line. Each candidate will need a deposit of $25,000, which is refundable at the end of the leadership race as long as they followed the rules.

Vic Fedeli, the former Ontario PC party interim leader, may also have a good shot at a cabinet position. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

Then there's a $75,000 registration and another fee of $25,000 for accessing the voter's list. A campaign spending cap of $750,000 has been placed on all the candidates.

So running for the PC Party leadership race could cost as much as buying a semi-detached home in Toronto.

Voting begins Friday, March 2 and ends at 9:00 p.m. on Thursday, March 8. In lieu of a leadership convention, the party  will throw an event two days later to unveil the new leader.