Shunning the old guard that has lost four straight elections, Progressive Conservatives are pinning their hopes on an unknown federal backbencher.
Barrie MP Patrick Brown, 36, won the Tory leadership Saturday with promises of toppling Premier Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals in the 2018 vote.
Brown bested Whitby-Oshawa MPP Christine Elliott, 60, running an energetic campaign that reached deep into the Greater Toronto Area’s cultural communities for support and attracted celebrity endorsements from Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and hockey legend Wayne Gretzky.
Lacking a seat at Queen’s Park, it is not immediately clear when or where he will run for provincial office.
As riding-by-riding voting results were read aloud to 800 partisans gathered at the Toronto Congress Centre near Pearson International Airport, the cheers from Brown’s camp grew louder.
“Change is coming!” bellowed one of his supporters as thunder sticks boomed in the background.
In sharp contrast to previous PC leadership conventions, the event marked a quick end to a race Tory officials had hoped would generate more interest as the party works to restore its reputation and war chest.
But the lengthy and divisive 10-month campaign saw three candidates drop out — with moderate MPPs Vic Fedeli (Nipissing) and Lisa MacLeod (Nepean-Carleton) backing Elliott and their colleague Monte McNaughton (Lambton-Kent-Middlesex) throwing his largely social conservative support to Brown.
The new leader must now reach out to the vast majority of Tory MPPs who worked on Elliott’s campaign, and pick one of them to act as his point person in the legislature’s daily question period, going toe-to-toe with Wynne and her cabinet ministers.
It will mark the first time the Conservatives do not have their leader in the house since John Tory, now mayor of Toronto, lost a 2007 bid to unseat Wynne in Don Valley West and later quit after failing to win a 2009 byelection in Haliburton-Kawartha Lakes-Brock.
For his part, McNaughton will have to heal a rift with Elliott and her supporters after an email attack on her last weekend with the subject line “Christine Elliott Trudeau???”
Playing off her campaign slogan of creating a “Big Blue Tent,” McNaughton charged she would turn the party into a “Little Pink Tent” and so irked more than a dozen MPPs backing Elliott that they wore pink Monday, posed for pictures in the media and accused him of homophobia.
McNaughton insisted he was misunderstood, that he meant Elliott was “Liberal Light” and insisted to reporters he did not consult Brown’s campaign beforehand.
Party insiders, meanwhile, remain concerned the two-term MPP has given the Wynne government ammunition to use against the PCs for years to come.
While some Liberals had been privately hoping for a win by Brown, a pro-lifer who has voted against same-sex marriage, others admit he is a formidable organizer.
“He is smooth and well put together and … smart enough to know that he has to pretend post-weekend to be to those who voted for him for leader,” said one senior Grit insider, noting Brown has learned at the foot of Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
Indeed, the Barrie MP took the lion’s share of credit for helping increase the party’s membership to almost 77,000 from 11,000 a year ago.
While Elliott had campaigned on bringing the Conservatives back to the centre they occupied when governing Ontario for five decades until 1985, Brown was harder to pin down.
He painted his rivals as part of a party establishment responsible for botched election campaigns against Wynne and her predecessor Dalton McGuinty, such as Tory’s 2007 promise of taxpayer funding for religious schools and Hudak’s 2013 pledge to cut 100,000 public sector jobs.
That controversial promise – made exactly one year ago Saturday by Hudak, ironically at a Barrie announcement attended by Brown – was blamed for the party’s drubbing at the polls and a loss of nine seats.
Hudak announced he would step down once a new leader was elected but was defenestrated earlier by an angry caucus.
He remains as MPP for Niagara West-Glanbrook and a party stalwart.
On Saturday, Hudak praised the “two great candidates” on the final ballot.
“Christine Elliott was my deputy leader; Patrick Brown has shown incredible energy and outreach for the party. We’re going to be in good hands,” he said.
Tories are hoping this leadership race finally puts them back on a path to power after being out of office since 2003, when McGuinty won a landslide and defeated former premier Ernie Eves, who had taken over from Mike Harris.
Subsequent elections have been hard on party morale and it has been tough for the provincial Tories to attract the best candidates and staff given that Harper’s Conservatives have held power in Ottawa for nine years.
On Saturday, Harris, who remained neutral in the contest, said “the most important thing when this is over is that we have a united party fighting for those things that united our party.”
“There are a lot of things that unite us and a lot of them have to do with what’s wrong in the province today with balanced budgets and responsible spending and the right size of government and electricity rates that industry might one day be able to afford.”