Two, and only two, strongly conservative leaders have been popular in Ontario: Mike Harris and Stephen Harper. Now Doug Ford wants to be the third. Which prompts a question: How is Mr. Ford like the former premier and the former prime minister, and how is he different?
Is Mr. Ford simply the latest iteration of Harris/Harper conservatism: big on law and order, even bigger on spending and tax cuts, but more economically than socially conservative? Or is he something completely different?
The answer may lie in an emotion: anger.
What follows is based on conversations with half a dozen Ontario conservatives, some with close ties to Mr. Ford, others with ties to Mr. Harper or Mr. Harris. Most agreed to offer their perspectives on condition they remain anonymous. Those perspectives were remarkably similar.
Most would rather have seen a leader who was closer to the party establishment and to the political mainstream, such as former MPP Christine Elliott or businesswoman Caroline Mulroney. But all were resolved to support Mr. Ford nonetheless.
They were impressed with his campaign and are more impressed with his first weeks as leader. No foolish statements. Strict message discipline.
He has been good for party unity − both Ms. Elliott and Ms. Mulroney are running as candidates − and the crowds showing up at party rallies are impressive. And Mr. Ford has several qualities that these conservatives admire.
First, he is loathed by the Laurentian elites − senior figures in the public service, academia, journalism, the arts and on Bay Street who are accustomed to setting the governing agenda. They felt only contempt for Mr. Harris and detested Mr. Harper, but that’s nothing compared to how they feel about Mr. Ford. The more the Laurentian elites hate a politician, the more conservatives love him.
Second, internal polling suggests that the Progressive Conservatives could do even better under Mr. Ford than they would have under former leader Patrick Brown. The Ford Progressive Conservatives are currently far ahead of the Kathleen Wynne Liberals and the Andrea Horwath NDP, although everyone knows election campaigns are volatile.
Two groups in particular gravitate to the Etobicoke businessman and former Toronto councillor. One is immigrants in suburban ridings, who see their own economic and social conservatism reflected in his values.
One conservative observer said that immigrant voters may see Mr. Ford, more than Ms. Wynne or Ms. Horwath, as the kind of person they’d like to work for.
Another is something conjured by Mr. Ford’s arrival on the provincial scene: The NDP/Tory switch voter. Mr. Ford’s supporters acknowledge that with him as leader, they may lose formerly winnable ridings in Toronto, or affluent suburban ridings such as Oakville.
But new opportunities present themselves in places such as Windsor or Hamilton, where factory workers who supported the NDP last time out may well be attracted to Mr. Ford’s for-the-little-guy populism.
“Go to your local Walmart.” says Paul Rhodes, who was a senior adviser to Mr. Harris. “That’s Ford nation.”
These are all ways in which people who cast a ballot for Mike Harris or Stephen Harper might cast a ballot as well for Doug Ford. But there are also big differences between Mr. Ford and his predecessors.
Mr. Ford supports requiring parental consent for teenagers seeking an abortion and wants to revisit the sex-education curriculum. Neither Mr. Harper nor Mr. Harris went anywhere near such loaded topics.
And while Mr. Harris and Mr. Harper were experienced politicians who understood the major issues confronting them, Mr. Ford demonstrates no strong grasp of policy. His is a politics of raw emotion.
But as one veteran conservative who knows what they’re talking about observed, elections are fought on emotion, not issues, and in the upcoming Ontario campaign, that emotion for many voters is anger at a decade and a half of Liberal mismanagement of the province’s finances − higher taxes and much higher electricity bills, with nothing tangible to show for it except a pile of debt.
People were angry when they elected Mike Harris and Stephen Harper. But neither leader allowed himself to be defined by anger. Neither was much of a populist.
But Doug Ford doesn’t just understand that anger, he embodies it. That’s what makes him a populist in a way his predecessors never were. And the odds are good it will make him premier.