And then there were three

Christine Elliott is the latest to announce her entry into the Ontario PC leadership race following Frank Klees and Randy Hillier.  Elliott announced on Twitter just after midnight earlier this morning and will be doing some press soon to give detail of her plans.

I met Elliott just last weekend as she stopped by Ottawa to measure support for a potential bid.  I asked if she could differentiate herself from the other candidates and she replied, in obvious reference to Tim Hudak, that she’s not a career politician and that she brings “real-world” experience to the race.  Asked for an example of a public policy initiative she would highlight should she lead the opposition in Queen’s Park she replied that the PC Party should emphasize its strength on its mental health strategy for Ontario.  As for education which became the biggest snag for the party led by John Tory during the last election, Elliott conceded that vouchers and charter school would likely be off the table as something the party should champion over the coming years.

Randy Hillier also announced this week and exploded out of the gate with a very professional Hopey-Changey-styled website that emphasized three distinct policies that the former head of the Lanark Landowners Association would strive for in Ontario’s public policy debate.  Abolishment of the Human Rights Commission, Senate elections for Ontario and a “Freedom of Association and Conscience Act” (allowing individuals to opt out of activities in their professions which they find morally objectionable) are the policy initiatives that Hillier will be selling at the doors over the next three (three?!) months.  It is rumoured (though with some suspicion) that Hillier has already sold 2500 memberships.

Frank Klees, perhaps sensing that Hillier was set to announce on Monday, did his best to preempt the announcement by letting his intentions be known on Sunday.  The former Harris cabinet minister and well-liked caucus member disappointed some as he launched without much fanfare or campaign.

Another former Harris cabinet minister is also set to announce though it is unknown as to when.  The perceived (self-styled) front-runner of the race is Tim Hudak, who also has the backing of the former premier.  I attended a breakfast meeting with Hudak a few weeks ago and it’s not much of a scoop to tell you that he is lining up for a serious bid.  Asked then if he’d be announcing soon, he replied that for now he’s only encouraging a dialogue on the future direction of the party.  Of course, he’ll be entering soon, but he’s holding off for strategic reasons.  Like Fred Thompson in the 2008 GOP bid for nomination, an unannounced perceived front-runner can keep his name in the gossip of partisans and media alike by keeping the will-he-or-won’t-he chatter going, though like Thompson, withholding does not necessarily protect a candidate from flopping.  Though his allies in the party executive have engineered a short race in his favour, Hudak will still have to contend among a field of strong candidates.

Conservative staffers in Ottawa are split between Elliott, who is also the wife of federal finance minister Jim Flaherty, and Hillier who carries the true-blue banner of provincial conservatism for many in this town.  Many of the old pros and much of the provincial party establishment are lining up behind Hudak while the new pros are putting their chips on Elliott.

Tim Hudak comes by the office

Our office in downtown Ottawa today hosted potential Ontario PC leadership candidate Tim Hudak for a meet and greet with friends and colleagues on Parliament Hill today. Many thanks to Dimitri Pantazopoulos and Phil von Finkenstein for coordinating and to Chris Froggatt for tieing it all together.

Hudak spoke about returning Ontario to a clear sense of conservatism and will be attending the Manning Centre conference this weekend.

On the developing news front, I’ve learned that Hudak is receiving the endorsement of Rob Nicholson, the federal minister of Justice. Does Froggatt’s involvement with today’s event mean that endorsement from his boss John Baird will follow?

The Manning Centre is hosting a reception tonight prior to our conference and I can confirm that Tim Hudak, Christine Elliott, Randy Hillier and Peter van Loan will be in attendence. The Manning Centre conference will be the first significant venue for leadership pre-campaigning.

Who is considering a run at the Ontario PC leadership?

I’ve been hitting the phone, email and blackberry PIN asking known PC organizers, student leaders and strategists who’s been calling them “testing the waters”. I’ve learned that there are at least seven people considering a bid for the Ontario PC leadership to succeed John Tory. Here they are:

Tim Hudak: The perceived front-runner for the PC leadership is backed by a number of student/youth leaders, much of the party executive but has shallow support in caucus. Hudak’s people are pushing for an early leadership election (June) in order to deprive oxygen from other rivals who are trying to catch up. Hudak has been billed as a “true-blue conservative” by many of his supporters.

Christine Elliott: MPP from Whitby-Oshawa, lawyer and wife of Canada’s federal Conservative finance minister, Jim Flaherty. Flaherty ran for the PC leadership against John Tory and the organization and team may fall into place should Elliott contest the leadership.

Frank Klees: Among Hudak and Elliott, Klees rounds out the top three frontrunners who are making active and concerted pitchs to potential supporters to form a team for the 2009 leadership race. Klees ran against Tory for leadership in 2004 and served as a cabinet minister under Premier Harris.

Randy Hillier: Hillier is the former president of the Lanark Landowners Association and has represented a defiant conservative streak during his time in the Ontario legislature. The most conservative among the lot, many see a bid by Hillier as principled yet politically untenable. According to my sources, Hillier has been pushing for a later leadership election.

Peter Shurman: One of the only gains during the last election for the Ontario PC, Shurman is the MPP for Thornhill. A former broadcaster and businessman, Shurman has the profile and resources for a serious bid though my sources say that he is testing the waters carefully at this time. (update: Shurman’s out, but was considering this possibility)

Peter van Loan: Yes, the Conservative federal minister for Public Safety is said to be “leaving the door” open for a potential run at the provincial party leadership. PVL is the former president of the PC Party of Ontario, former government House leader for the Conservative government and, in his previous private sector life, he was a successful lawyer in Toronto. Van Loan is a “no guff” style administrator and would likely bring order to a divisive caucus that churned under Tory.

Dean Del Mastro: Del Mastro is the federal Conservative MP from Peterborough and has served in the House of Commons since 2006. Mr. Del Mastro is also allowing talk to circulate about a potential leadership shot to make a bid for the Premier’s office in the next Ontario election. Del Mastro plays the wouded partisan role well and this may be the contrast to John Tory’s approach that Ontario PC partisans are seeking. Del Mastro has been a visible member of the CPC caucus and has done a good job to raise his media profile in the short time he’s been in Parliament. (update: Del Mastro has ruled out a run at leadership but confirmed that he was approached to run the day of John Tory’s resignation)

UPDATE: Shurman says he’s out, Elizabeth Witmer says she’s considering a run.

John Tory loses by-election, expected to resign as party leader

Earlier tonight, as the polls came in, it became clearer and clearer that PC Party of Ontario leader John Tory would lose his last chance at challenging Dalton McGuinty for the Premier’s office.  By the time the Haliburton-Kawartha Lakes-Brock by-election was called by the Canadian Press at about 10:30pm, Tory’s margin of loss represented a 9% point drop from former PC MPP Laurie Scott’s electoral footing.  Scott beat her opponent by 20% during the last provincial election.

Tory has scheduled a press conference for Friday and many expect the embattled leader to resign.  Having faced a humiliating loss in the previous provincial election after championing a policy on religious school choice and polarizing the party after a divisive leadership review, it is unknown how the former CEO of Rogers and commissioner of the CFL expects to quarterback his team after this evening’s loss of what was considered a “safe seat”.  Tory did hint to reporters tonight – and I’m paraphrasing – that his future ‘may not be in public life’.

From reports on the ground, party workers were not expecting this loss though some cite the typical organizational campaign and e-day deficiencies.  I have it on good authority that the PCs did not do any internal polling in the riding for this contest. (I have it on better authority that polling was done and 10 days prior to e-day and it showed Tory trailing by 5 points).

As a leader, John Tory retired the debt of the PC Party bringing the party’s fiscal position back into the black.  The party will hopefully continue to benefit from his strengths as a fundraiser.  Many have described Tory as a good man, though not the right man.  Despite his shortcomings tonight, public service is a sacrifice to one’s family life and career and I know that Conservatives, myself included, are thankful for his tireless contributions.  From my personal experience, I’ve known Tory to be a dedicated, passionate and faithful activist for Canadian Conservatives.  I know that he’ll continue to be committed to advancing our parties both provincially and federally.

Names of potential candidates to replace Tory as leader of the PCPO that are being pushed around tonight include Christine Elliot, John Yakabuski, Randy Hillier, Peter Shurman and Tim Hudak.  It is expected that many will step forward as there were many known to be waiting in the wings prior to the previous leadership review.

An interesting and chaotic era in provincial Conservative politics begins tomorrow.  Rebuilding starts in the morning.

FLASHBACK: Five years ago this month, I met John Tory as he went on a provincial listening tour before contesting the provincial PC leadership.