Progressive Conservatives are coping with a radically altered political landscape after a little-known federal backbencher has emerged as the front-runner for the party’s leadership.
Barrie MP Patrick Brown, 36, the only candidate without a seat at Queen’s Park, appears to have sold upward of 40,000 of the more than 70,000 PC memberships by Saturday’s 5 p.m. deadline.
Only those who bought a $10 membership before the cut-off can cast a preferential ballot in the one-member, one-vote election in May.
Brown’s sales prowess was a jolt to the candidacy of MPP Christine Elliott (Whitby-Oshawa), the party establishment’s choice with the backing of 18 of the 28-member PC caucus.
Elliott, 59, is refusing to release her tally until Conservative officials process the membership forms to eliminate duplicate or questionable submissions.
But sources told the Toronto Star her total is closer to 26,000 with third-place candidate Monte McNaughton, 37, the MPP for Lambton—Essex—Kent, at around 4,400.
“She’s not as far behind as it seems, but she’s definitely behind since she sold fewer memberships,” a senior Tory said Sunday, noting Elliott’s backers are more likely to actually vote because they are the party faithful.
“It’s definitely an insurgency,” the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity to freely discuss internal PC machinations, said of Brown’s stunning campaign.
Taking a page from the federal Conservatives’ playbook, he has made inroads to Ontario’s many cultural communities, signing up thousands of new Canadians and injecting fresh blood to the PC Party, even attracting hockey legend Wayne Gretzky to the fold.
But it remains to be seen whether these new Tories will show up to vote in May — and if Brown’s sharp criticism of previous leader Tim Hudak will hurt him with party stalwarts.
A backbench MP since 2006, he has been crusading against the provincial Tories’ “same old, same old” approach to campaigns that have seen them lose four straight elections to the Liberals.
Brown, backed by just three sitting Tory MPPs, said the party, which has governed Ontario for 50 of the past 75 years, needs to face the “uncomfortable truth” that drastic change is needed.
“History is on his side,” said another senior Conservative, pointing out that in the past four PC leadership contests — in 1990, 2002, 2004 and 2009 — the winning candidate sold the most memberships.
On Twitter, a triumphant Brown emphasized “growth is the key to our future success.”
The success of the unmarried, bilingual lawyer also appeared to boost the spirits of the governing Liberals, who privately admit to being more concerned about Premier Kathleen Wynne facing off against Elliott, a unilingual lawyer and the widow of former federal finance minister Jim Flaherty.
Liberals were crowing on social media that a Brown-led party would make it easier for Wynne to be re-elected in 2018.
A two-time former PC candidate, Ottawa’s Randall Denley, agreed with that assessment.
“Right-wing, anti-abortion candidate @brownbarrie political suicide in general election. Wake up #PCPO,” tweeted Denley.
“Libs would have a field day demonizing this guy. Next PC leader has to appeal beyond party base. Don’t saddle yourself with another unelectable leader,” he wrote.
Elliott’s campaign, meanwhile, was disputing “highly questionable claims” they sold only 13,000 memberships.
“These claims are so erroneous that it would be unfair to all Progressive Conservative members to allow them to spread unchecked. Let us set the record straight. While the final tally is still being processed, that number does not even reflect half of the memberships we have sold,” said Elliott spokesman Mike Ras.
“These sales are on top of the strong base of support that Christine Elliott enjoys among existing members as well as the overwhelming support of members recruited by (former leadership candidates) Vic Fedeli and Lisa MacLeod before they withdrew from the race,” said Ras.
“Our campaign has led this race from the beginning — in volunteers, fundraising, endorsements and, most importantly, in supporters across all of Ontario.”
While most PC insiders expect a first-ballot winner at the party’s May 9 convention in Toronto, it is possible that third-place candidate McNaughton, who is appealing to social conservatives, could end up being the kingmaker or queenmaker.