With Patrick Brown gone and an election looming, will voters still give the PCs a chance?
Conservative strategists say a new leader must be chosen as soon as possible
When Patrick Brown woke up on Wednesday morning, he was the leader of a party with a lead in the polls and what appeared to be a healthy chance at toppling Kathleen Wynne and a 15-year run of Ontario Liberal governments.
Shortly after midnight, he was out of a job — forced into resigning by the Progressive Conservatives after a bombshell report from CTV News in which two women alleged sexual misconduct by the veteran politician. They are claims that Brown has vehemently denied.
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Now, with Brown's party scrambling to find his replacement just months before voters cast their ballots, do the PCs still have a shot to win?
It depends on who you ask.
Around the province, voters are split on whether the PCs can overcome Brown's departure by election day.
"I wouldn't say that it would personally change my vote," said Iain Moggach in Brown's hometown of Barrie. "I think the [Progressive Conservatives] are going to have to hustle pretty quickly to find a solution because those were pretty big shoes to fill."
"I think it's going to be tough for the party to recover from this," said Jason Lodder in downtown Toronto. "But I remain hopeful that they'll be able to choose a new leader and that there will be a great election coming up soon."
"I'm not a Conservative voter, myself," said Jocelyn Newman, also in Barrie. "But I think it's going to shake up what's going to happen in the election."
In Mississauga, one woman indicated the scandal could cost the the Tories at least one vote in a key battleground area of the province.
"I would have considered it. But at this point, no," said Samantha Francis when asked about casting a ballot for the PCs.
Back to basics
With no firm timeline to announce a new leader, the Progressive Conservatives could be in for a major shakeup just four months away from the election.
Insiders say the party would be smart to get through that process quickly if they want to mount a serious challenge to the Liberals.
"It's a significant challenge," said conservative strategist Jason Lietaer. "The key strategic objective is to get the focus off them and back onto Kathleen Wynne as soon as possible."
Lietaer added that Brown's resignation could, in fact, create an opportunity for the Tories if they handle the transition smoothly.
Despite the party's efforts, Brown, he said, was not well-known to "a lot of Ontarians," and his replacement might have more success over the coming months.
"There is time to introduce somebody; there is time to put some advertising behind that person and there's time to change the channel back to the Liberals' failures," he said.
Those chances will be even greater, Lietaer said, if the PCs select a woman for the role.
Between possible candidates like Caroline Mulroney, Lisa Raitt, Lisa MacLeod and Sylvia Jones, he said the party has plenty of opportunity to make that happen.
Will a new leader resonate?
Among voters, there's no consensus on whether Brown's resignation will be an opportunity or insurmountable challenge for the PCs.
"I think the Conservatives are going to have a hard time without him as their leader," said Joanne Robertson in Barrie.
Others stress that the party's new leader will have to be very carefully chosen.
"It depends on who's selected," said Jason Lodder. "The messy part is going to be: how do they do that in such a short period of time?"
Whoever gets the job, and whenever they take it, conservative voters like Alfred Maier say the Brown scandal will hang over the party for a long time to come.
"It's a big sadness for all the supporters of the PCs," he said.