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Never mind Justin Trudeau — Conservative insiders fear Erin O’Toole’s toughest election opponent might be Doug Ford

Never mind Justin Trudeau — Conservative insiders fear Erin O’Toole’s toughest election opponent might be Doug Ford
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“We might have won that election but for Doug Ford’s disastrous first year,” the former cabinet minister and retiring Thornhill MP told the Star in an interview this week.

“It’s that simple. That’s what we heard at the door. We were leading in a lot of York Region ridings … up until about three weeks, four weeks before the election.

“Justin (Trudeau) and the Liberal team did the ‘Doug Ford, Doug Ford, Doug Ford’ commercials and they really pumped that into the GTA in the same way that Paul Martin tried unsuccessfully to say ‘Mike Harris, Mike Harris, Mike Harris’ in 2006.”

Kent’s assessment is widely shared — but rarely publicly uttered — by Conservatives who hope the party can once again win in the electorally all-important suburbs orbiting Toronto. It’s why Andrew Scheer enlisted Alberta Premier Jason Kenney to stump for him in ethnic communities in the GTHA during the 2019 campaign, while avoiding even uttering the four-letter F word — “Ford” — during campaign stops.

As COVID-19’s third wave surges, conservative premiers’ approval ratings have sunk — most notably for Ford and Alberta’s Jason Kenney. If Ford’s dismal approval ratings hurt the federal Conservatives in 2019, the party will have an uphill battle to win over voters who are full of anger, frustration and fatigue with the Ontario Progressive Conservatives’ management of the pandemic’s third and most deadly wave.

O’Toole’s premier problem is twofold: first, voters in Ontario might go to the polls federally before the next provincial election, meaning voters who are angry with Ford could take out their frustrations on federal Conservatives. Second, Ford’s escalating fight with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is sucking up oxygen and media attention — making it even harder for O’Toole to garner voters’ pandemic-addled attention.

“They already had to deal with this issue in the last federal election, where Ford’s numbers were terrible and they worried about his (intervention),” said David Herle, a longtime Liberal strategist and pollster who worked with former Liberal premier Kathleen Wynne.

“If the Ford government remains as unpopular as it is into a federal campaign, you can assume that people may take out their frustrations on the first conservatives they have a chance to take them out on,” Herle said.

“And secondly, to the extent that the Ford government has appeared incompetent, it really undercuts O’Toole, who doesn’t have a strong track record to run on when he claims that he would have done vaccines more effectively or border controls more effectively.

“People may well be inclined to say, ‘Well, I didn’t see conservatives doing anything effectively during the pandemic.’”

There’s a well-worn argument in Ontario politics that the province’s voters prefer when Queen’s Park and Ottawa are controlled by different parties — Conservatives provincially, Liberals federally, or vice versa.

It’s true that Ontarians have tended to vote in federal elections for a party that is politically opposed to the gang that runs the province. But Herle says voters don’t make their decisions that way.

“It’s not because Ontario voters are making some shrewd calculation of the need to have balance,” he said.

“The normal pattern of Canadian politics is that one party is in power federally for a period of about 10 years. Over that time, that party loses all the provincial governments they hold in the country because, in the provinces, people run against the feds.

“And then, eventually, the federal government flips and the reverse things happens.”

Conservatives believe Trudeau and the Liberal government are attempting to shift the blame for problems with Canada’s vaccine rollout onto the premiers — and that the real problem is the federal government’s supply, not the province’s distribution schemes.

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Whether that’s fair or not, it informs conservative political strategy. A source close to O’Toole said that based on Conservative research, the public assigns more blame to the federal government than it does to the premiers for COVID-19’s continuing spread.

“Most Ontarians blame the feds for the third wave,” said the source, who agreed to speak frankly about strategy on the condition they not be named.

According to that research, Ontario voters first blame the public for failing to follow public health restrictions, followed by the federal Liberals for “failing to secure the borders” and the perception that Canada did not procure enough vaccines early enough. The next largest share of blame is directed at the provinces for not acting quickly enough to impose restrictions, followed by problems with provincial vaccine distribution.

Based on public health data, COVID-19 transmission from travellers accounts for a tiny fraction of total cases. But that didn’t stop the Ford government from launching an advertising blitz attacking the federal Liberals’ border policies.

That unprecedented move seems to have again soured Ford’s relationship with the federal Liberals, apparently putting an end to the premier’s short-lived cosiness with Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland during the pandemic’s early days.
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