With Rob Ford on Sideline, Canada’s Harper Faces Toronto Shutout

Prime Minister Stephen Harper with Toronto Mayor Rob Ford
Prime Minister Stephen Harper with Toronto Mayor Rob Ford. Photographer: Rick Madonik/Toronto Star via Getty Images

Canada’s biggest city took years to warm up to Prime Minister Stephen Harper before he broke through on the arm of a mayor, Rob Ford, later implicated in a crack cocaine scandal. This time around, Ford is on the sidelines and Harper is facing a Toronto shutout.

The incumbent Conservatives have been bruised by scandal and a slumping economy. They are locked in a tight-three way race ahead of Canada’s Oct. 19 election and are well below the polling levels that delivered them a majority four years ago.

In Toronto, specifically, they are on the ropes as the once-dominant Liberals rebound. Harper’s Conservatives won more seats in the city’s 416 area code than any other party four years ago but now incumbents -- including Finance Minister Joe Oliver, who is in a tough fight to hold his district -- are at risk of being swept.

“There’s a good chance they’ll be wiped out,” said Lorne Bozinoff of Forum Research, a Toronto-based polling firm. “I think the 416 in particular, but in general Ontario, is lost to the Tories because the prime minister is not connecting. He has terrible approval ratings.”

Harper’s woes extend across Canada’s most vote-rich province, where he won 44 percent of the vote in 2011 and 73 seats, including nine of the 23 in Toronto. That haul, which accounted for nearly half the number of seats required to put the prime minister past the majority mark for the first time that year, is at risk of becoming a high-water mark.

In the three previous elections, the Conservatives averaged 35 percent in Ontario and never won a seat in Toronto. Harper’s team is currently averaging 33 percent in the province, behind the Liberals at 37 percent, according to polling aggregator ThreeHundredEight.com.

Helping Hand

With two new seats being added as Toronto grows, the city now has 25, or more than six of Canada’s 10 provinces, making it vital to Harper’s bid for another majority.

Several factors helped the last breakthrough, including the national strength of the Conservative brand and an unprecedented Liberal collapse. Ford, who didn’t seek re-election as mayor and is now a city councilor recovering from cancer surgery, has one theory on why the prime minister won Toronto in 2011.

“I don’t want to sound conceited but I endorsed, when I was mayor, Stephen Harper -- and I think that had a lot to do with it,” Ford said in an Aug. 20 interview.

The former mayor, who admitted to smoking crack cocaine before leaving office, said he’s voting Conservative again and ordered a party sign, though when asked if his family’s endorsement still stands, he replied: “We’re going to sit back and we’re going to vote, and we just don’t know how active we’re going to be.”

Through a spokesman, Ford declined last week to elaborate on that statement.

Conservative Gains

The 2011 election surge saw the Conservatives win widely in the suburban and semi-rural districts that surround Toronto. However, as the Conservatives rose in Ontario ahead of the vote even party insiders weren’t optimistic about the central 416 region.

“I was out there selling to these potential candidates that this was actually a very winnable riding for us,” said Bernard Trottier, then a Conservative organizer in Etobicoke, the western-most of five former municipalities that joined the urban center to form the amalgamated city of Toronto in the late 1990s.

Etobicoke is the heart of “Ford Nation,” the moniker for the voting bloc of Ford supporters. “The party really didn’t think we had a really strong shot in the inner suburbs of Toronto -- the Etobicokes, the Scarboroughs, the North Yorks,” Trottier said.

So the organizer ran himself and won against then-Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff, whose party was reduced to just 34 seats, winning less than 19 percent of the popular vote nationally -- a historic low.

Liberal Rebound

Of those nine Toronto seats the Conservative breakthrough delivered, six were carried by an average margin of less than two percentage points. In each, the Liberals finished second.

Toronto was regularly dominated by the Liberals before the collapse under Ignatieff. The party has since rebounded under leader Justin Trudeau and, with support hovering around 30 percent nationally, is on pace to once again control the region.

The Liberals are now leading Toronto with 37 percent support, ahead of the Conservatives at 24 percent and the New Democratic Party at 23 percent, according to a Mainstreet Technologies poll published Friday.

In a statement, a spokesman for the Conservative campaign didn’t address the polls directly and said the party’s focus in Toronto is the same as it is nationally. “This election is a choice of which government is best to manage and protect the fragile Canadian economy,” Stephen Lecce said in an e-mail Sunday.

Hat-Trick Hopes

Harper has long wooed Toronto. Months after the last election, he appeared at a barbecue with Ford, referred to the family as a “Conservative political dynasty” and talked of completing the “hat trick” -- a sweep of all three levels of government. Those hopes were dashed last year when the provincial Liberals won a commanding majority, including nearly all the seats in the 416 area code.

Ford’s brother agrees the then-mayor boosted Harper in 2011. “We saw first-hand the day Rob endorsed Harper,” said Doug Ford, himself a former municipal politician. “Within a few days, or a day or two, the polls switched in Harper’s favor and I think Rob played a major role in that.”

Doug Ford has said he’d consider running for the Conservative leadership should Harper ever step down -- a possibility if he’s defeated or held to a minority. That suggests the fate of the Fords rests on the fate of Harper.

For his part, Trottier said at the start of the campaign he was optimistic the same forces that propelled both the Conservatives and Rob Ford to victory are still at play.

“I’m very sanguine about our prospects,” he said in an Aug. 6 interview. “I think within those inner suburbs of Toronto, there’s still that sense of downtown Toronto -- the downtown elites” calling all the shots.

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