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Tory leader candidates should learn from Ford, appeal to political foes: strategists

‘Turning enemies into friends without turning friends into enemies is what Doug Ford did’
Candidates Patrick Brown, left, Leslyn Lewis, Scott Aitchison, Pierre Poilievre, Jean Charest and Roman Baber, pose for photos after the French-language Conservative Leadership debate Wednesday, May 25, 2022, in Laval, Que. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

Doug Ford’s victory in Ontario — and capture of NDP and Liberal seats — has prompted Tory strategists to urge federal leadership candidates to take a leaf out of his book and try to turn political foes into allies.

Ford, whose appeal to blue-collar voters led to the Tories seizing NDP strongholds including Windsor-Tecumseh, said in his victory speech that he did not care too much for “political stripes” and would govern for everyone regardless of which party they usually support.

Michael Diamond, who worked on Ford’s leadership campaign as well as federal Conservative general election campaigns, said there was a “huge lesson” for Tory leadership candidates from Ford’s win about “growing beyond your historical confines.”

“Turning enemies into friends without turning friends into enemies is what Doug Ford did,” Diamond said. “By reaching out and making inroads and engaging in dialogue, Ford attracted a new demographic to the party.”

Diamond said the Progressive Conservative premier’s appeal to the labour movement and his endorsement by trade unions made crucial inroads into the NDP’s traditional working-class base. This is a strategy leadership contenders could mirror to grow Tory support federally.

“The NDP has tried to be a party of the woke left, the metropolitan elite and faculty lounge cocktail parties,” he said. “The labour movement isn’t caught up in so many of these issues. They want a stronger economy so the mills don’t close. When the NDP kowtows to downtown communities and elites, they are turning off traditional voters.”

Chris McCluskey, a Conservative strategist and former aide to several Tory ministers, said Ford was “successful in reshaping what conservatism is about in the view of a lot of people — and that includes constituencies that were previously thought inaccessible.”

Tim Powers, who worked on Tory campaigns including those of former prime ministers Stephen Harper and Joe Clark, said Ford was “looking to include rather than exclude” — an important message to leadership contenders about “inclusion over purity.”

“If you listen to some of the rhetoric around the Conservative leadership race, a lot of it has been around ‘well you are not Conservative enough or you’re a Liberal,’” he said. “When you start excluding people, you start creating the conditions for losing.”

Powers, chair of Summa Strategies, warned that some leadership candidates, particularly Pierre Poilievre, seemed to be “limiting the market of potential support as opposed to expanding it.”

He said voters were tired of divisive rhetoric and part of Ford’s appeal to voters was his authenticity.

“If voters believe you are authentic — Ford is viewed as authentic — they will give you the benefit of the doubt,” he said.

Conservative leadership contenders have until midnight to secure party memberships for their supporters to vote in the election for the next leader, who will replace Erin O’Toole.

The party’s leadership election organizing committee said late last month it had already broken records for how many new members candidates have drawn in ahead of the cutoff.

“The party membership in the past two leadership races has been around 270,000 people, of which only about 60 per cent vote,” said veteran Conservative campaigner Melanie Paradis, who has remained neutral in the race.

“From what I’ve heard from party sources, the number will now be north of 400,000. Which means that we’ve probably had like 250,000 renewals and 150,000 new members.”

Leadership candidates have spent the last several months encouraging potential supporters to sign up to vote.

Although it could take weeks for the party to release the final voter list, some campaigns didn’t wait to boast about the number of new members they say they’ve signed up.

Patrick Brown, a former Tory MP who is now mayor of Brampton, Ont., tweeted on Friday that he had “smashed” his campaign’s goal by signing up over 150,000 members and memberships were “still pouring in.”

Ex-Quebec premier Jean Charest’s campaign said it recruited tens of thousands of new members and re-engaged many who have not been involved since the Harper years, including in areas where the party needs to grow support to win the next election.

“We have a confirmed path to victory. Based on our recruitment, we have the points we need to win the leadership race,” said Charest in a statement.

Poilievre, Brown, Charest, Leslyn Lewis, Scott Aitchison and Roman Baber’s names will all be on the ranked ballot in the fall.

Not all memberships are created equal, at least when it comes to the final vote. Each riding is worth a certain number of points, so candidates have had to be strategic about where they grow their base.

Charest’s campaign said it outperformed membership targets in Atlantic Canada, Vancouver, Calgary, rural New Brunswick, urban Ontario, and Quebec.

“It is now confirmed that there will be no winner on the first ballot,” said campaign chair Mike Coates. “This is far from the coronation many were expecting at the onset of this race.”

The camps will now turn their attention to getting out the vote and attempt to persuade their opponents’ supporters to switch allegiances — or at least put their name second on the ballot.

Because of the ranked ballot system, voters’ second choice could play a major role in determining the next leader.

That’s what secured O’Toole’s victory in the last leadership race when he picked up down-ballot support from Lewis and Derek Sloan’s voters.

Paradis said after the final voter list is released, she expects the campaigns will poll the potential voters on key issues. The results could inform the kinds of promises voters see in the final days of the race, as candidates try to get supporters to change camps.

The new leader will be named on Sept. 10.

—Marie Woolf and Laura Osman, The Canadian Press

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