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Backbencher Brown an outsider with a shot at Ontario Tory leadership

In Alberta, revelations about the excesses of the former Progressive Conservative leader are overshadowing attempts to choose her successor. In Newfoundland and Labrador, the Tories thought they had a new helmsman, only to see him suddenly drop out of politics. And in both places, the parties are choosing a premier.

So maybe their cousins in Ontario – out of power for more than a decade, demoralized from their latest loss and about $8-million in debt – should not feel too bad about the lacklustre early stages of their own leadership race. In other provinces, there is more urgency; the PCs here are not expected to choose Tim Hudak's replacement before next spring.

But it is not going to get much easier for them to engage each other, let alone the public, when they will be competing for attention with municipal elections this fall, and a federal one next year. With their membership ranks believed to have grown thinner than ever under Mr. Hudak, the turnout could be shockingly low whenever their vote is held – well below the 25,000 or so who cast ballots in the last such contest.

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That could represent a lost opportunity for renewal. But what might be more worrying is that the party that ran the country's largest province for most of the 20th century, and is still the leading alternative to the governing Liberals, could be open to a takeover by anyone able to mount a halfway decent sign-up campaign.

That is starting to look more than hypothetical. Chatter is growing in PC circles about the competitiveness of Patrick Brown – a backbench federal MP from Barrie who does not seem a natural fit for a party looking to broaden its appeal.

The 36-year-old career politician, who could easily be accused of the same sort of glibness that plagued Mr. Hudak, is not going to win the air war against erstwhile deputy leader and perceived front-runner Christine Elliott. And he could easily be bested on that front by other provincial caucus members (Vic Fedeli, Lisa MacLeod and Monte McNaughton) and the business executive (Rod Phillips) also plotting bids.

But leadership campaigns are all about on-the-ground organization, which most would-be candidates are struggling to build. And Mr. Brown has something they lack: access to a couple of potential voting blocs.

One of those is social conservatives. Mr. Brown, who is anti-abortion, shows signs of tapping into the network that helped former MPP Frank Klees finish a strong second to Mr. Hudak in 2009.

As chair of the Canada-India Parliamentary Association, he has also forged ties with Indo-Canadian communities. Those communities are not politically monolithic, of course, and other candidates will be reaching out to them. But in a provincial party that has had little success with immigrant voters, his relationships could be a big advantage.

If his support among those constituencies is spread out across enough ridings – a must if the party again uses a preferential balloting system that weights votes geographically – he could have a very real shot. That might not be a disaster. Mr. Brown has shown some skill for retail politics at the riding level; perhaps that could translate onto a broader stage. And the extent of the rebuilding needed means there is something to be said for youth.

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Optimists within PC ranks also hope someone with more stature – federal Transportation Minister Lisa Raitt, for instance – will be drawn in by the relative ease of winning the leadership. And Ms. Elliott or other contenders could develop their organizations. Ideally for the party, all will start bringing in lots of new members. The more voters, the broader the acceptance needed to win. The smaller that pool, the more Ontario Tories will face a sort of volatility that even PCs in Alberta and Newfoundland – who for all their troubles seem likely to go with relatively known commodities – don't have to worry about.

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About the Author
Political Feature Writer

Adam Radwanski is The Globe and Mail's political feature writer. More

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