Conservative MP Patrick Brown, the outsider in the race for the leadership of the Ontario Progressive Conservative party, is already declaring victory with a month to go after gaining the support of Monte McNaughton, the MPP for Lambton-Kent-Middlesex, who withdrew from the race Thursday.
The contest is now down to two candidates – Mr. Brown, 36, a lawyer and Barrie, Ont. MP, who was considered the dark horse when he entered the race last September, and Christine Elliott, the MPP for Whitby-Oshawa and the widow of former federal finance minister Jim Flaherty. Ms. Elliott has been widely viewed as the front-running candidate with the majority of caucus support. Two other PC MPPs, Lisa MacLeod and Vic Fedeli, had dropped out of the race earlier.
Mr. McNaughton, who claims he had signed up 12,000 new members, is encouraging them to support Mr. Brown. This gives Mr. Brown momentum in the last weeks of the contest.
Mr. Brown is claiming he now has more than 50,000 supporters. About 76,000 members are eligible to vote. The party had only 10,000 members when the leadership began.
"We are pretty confident we have the numbers to win … this will certainly only enhance it," Mr. Brown told the Globe in an interview Thursday morning, referring to the McNaughton supporters.
"There is such a current change that people want," he said, "but because of the broken nature of our party, whether it was the faith-based funding election or the hundred thousand job cuts election, we have failed to give voice to that yearning for change and I think people are fed up and they want to get it right this time."
He was referring to the 2007 provincial election, which the PCs lost when then-Ontario PC leader John Tory campaigned on extending public funding to faith-based schools. In addition, the PCs under leader Tim Hudak lost the 2014 election, in part, because of his policy to cut 100,000 civil service jobs.
Mr. Hudak resigned after his party failed to win the election, triggering this leadership race.
In his statement Thursday, Mr. McNaughton said that his campaign had helped to build the party membership but that it has reached an "important crossroads."
"I want to let you know that this morning I will begin taking the steps to wind down my campaign for leader," he wrote. He had the support of one MPP as well as former Toronto Mayor Rob Ford.
Mr. McNaughton did not run a strong campaign. At one point he was accused by Premier Kathleen Wynne of being homophobic after he lashed out at her new sex-ed curriculum, singling her out as not being a person to "tell parents what's age-appropriate for their children."
Ms. Wynne is gay, and she questioned Mr. McNaughton as to exactly what disqualified her from the job she was doing.
Mr. Brown had also criticized the sex-ed policy, saying it was not "acceptable to any of us." On Thursday, he defended Mr. McNaughton, arguing the MPP's comments about Ms. Wynne were taken out of context.
"I think Monte explained it was taken the wrong way and it wasn't in any reference to the premier's sexual orientation."
He said that Mr. McNaughton's criticism was focused on the lack of public consultation around the new curriculum.
Mr. Brown has campaigned partly on reforming and increasing the membership of the PC party in Ontario, tapping into the cultural communities to sign up new members. He has strong ties to the Indo-Canadian communities in Ontario and to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is coming to Canada later this month. Mr. Brown says he will be interrupting his campaign for two days to attend events in Ottawa and Toronto with the Indian leader.
Ms. Elliott took a swipe at Mr. Brown in responding to Mr. McNaughton's decision.
"Our members now have a clear choice for the future our Party," she said in a written statement. "Progressive Conservatives can choose my positive, pragmatic and truly progressive conservative vision that will resonate with all Ontarians and win the next election. Or they can choose Patrick Brown, an untested candidate with nothing more to offer than a life lived as a career politician. Worse yet, over the course of his time spent in office he has done little of significance and has no substantive record."
PC members vote May 3 and 7 for the leadership; is a preferential ballot. The results will be announced on May 9.