Stephen Harper seeks to tap into Ford Nation voter base

He can't even bring himself to say their names, but in the last days of this election campaign, Conservative Leader Stephen Harper is cosying up to Rob and Doug Ford, perhaps reluctantly, hoping the controversial brothers can deliver some crucial Toronto votes.

Harper to attend rally in Toronto supported by Rob and Doug Ford

While Conservative Leader Stephen Harper is seeking help from Rob and Doug Ford, he is also trying to keep some distance between himself and the Ford family. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

He can't even bring himself to say their names, but in the last days of this election campaign, Conservative Leader Stephen Harper is cosying up to Rob and Doug Ford, perhaps reluctantly, hoping the controversial brothers can deliver some crucial Toronto votes.

That the straitlaced, law-and-order Harper would associate his campaign and himself with the notorious former mayor, a former crack cocaine smoker also known for racist and misogynistic tirades, may speak to the level of concern he has about Monday's outcome.

"It's an indication of his state of mind that he's willing to consider things that, if he were in a stronger position in the polls, he might have otherwise shied away from," says Randi Rahamim, a principal at the Toronto-based communications firm Navigator Ltd. 

Both Fords were present at a Conservative rally in Toronto on Tuesday and are either co-hosting or supporting a Conservative rally in Toronto this Saturday, which Harper is set to attend.

'He is that desperate'

His courting of the Fords seems to send conflicting messages, however. Harper has taken a strong anti-drug stance and has repeatedly slammed Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau's plan to legalize marijuana. Yet here is Harper welcoming the support of such a polarizing figure.

"He is that desperate," said Scott Reid, a political strategist and former senior adviser to Paul Martin. "That things are that low, that frankly he has to denigrate himself in that way. I can't imagine for one moment that Stephen Harper has an ounce of time, or an inch of respect, for either one of the Fords.

"He's saying to Canadians, 'There's no depth to which I won't descend in the hunt for the single last vote."

The brothers' support comes as Rob Ford's former chief of staff Mark Towhey has released a book including graphic details of his former boss's abusive behaviour, including a  "no-holds barred screaming fest" Ford had with his wife.

"Stephen Harper should be embarrassed that he is having to count on the support of Rob Ford for his re-election," Trudeau said at a Quebec rally.

All this could be why Harper, while seeking their help, is also trying to put a little distance between himself and the Ford family. When answering questions about the Fords, Harper has only referred to them as "those individuals" or "that family" who are longtime Conservative supporters and that he welcomes their support. 

"If he actually uses the Ford name, there's a clip that will be on air within 24 hours in an attack ad," said Toronto-based political strategist Marcel Wieder.

On a practical level, why Harper would seek out the Fords' help is easy to understand. They have a committed voting base, the so-called Ford Nation, which could have a significant effect on some Toronto races.

'Well-oiled machine'

"For all the baggage the Fords represent, they also represent a highly well-oiled machine that can get the vote out," Rahamim said. 

If Ford Nation can guarantee voters, then despite all the trials and tribulations that the Fords have had, they could be an effective resource, Rahamim said.

The parts of Toronto that might be accessible to Harper are likely Etobicoke and parts of Scarborough — areas where the Fords can provide access, she said 

"So I think he'd be a fool not to tap into that resource."

They're also areas where Doug Ford did well in his unsuccessful mayoral bid against John Tory. 

"At the end of the day [the Conservatives] look at it and say, 'Those are our voters,' notwithstanding the problems Rob has had," said Wieder. "Doug Ford came within a few percentage points of beating John Tory. So [they're thinking] where's the downside if we can keep those voters.

"Crunch the numbers. You know you're going to get smoked in Toronto. You want to keep as many seats as you can," he said.

As for those who may be turned off by Harper's association with the Fords, Wieder said they likely wouldn't have voted for Harper anyway.

But Reid disagreed, saying there are risks to this strategy, as Harper could alienate the blue Liberals and red Tories that have thrown their support behind him in the past based on his economic policies.

"[The Fords] have their hands around some voters. How many? Don't know. He doesn't know. But right now he's begging for votes. Right now the Conservative Party in Ontario, in particular in the GTA and 905, is struggling to stay relevant and they are pulling out every stop."

Reid said Harper's reluctance to refer to the Fords by name is a mistake, because it displays his discomfort at what he's doing.

"If he was proud of what he was doing, he would embrace it with both arms and he would say their names. But he's obviously doing something that he finds distasteful, because he doesn't even want to acknowledge their presence.

"If you don't want to acknowledge their presence, don't dip into their pool of voters."

With files from The Canadian Press


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