11/20/2013 10:39 EST

Tim Hudak's Ford Problem Could Prove Fatal To His Election Hopes


Ever so reluctantly, federal Conservatives and Ontario Progressive Conservatives have begun to voice their concerns over the unfolding gong show at Toronto's City Hall.

Their caution and timidity is mind-boggling and, in the case of PC Leader Tim Hudak, potentially fatal.

Federal and provincial Conservatives have good reason to woo the so-called "Ford Nation." These voters helped elect a number of Tory MPs in Toronto and give Stephen Harper his first majority government in 2011. They are the voters Hudak desperately needs to win the next provincial election, widely expected in the spring.

But just how significant is Ford Nation to the electoral calculations of these two parties?

The latest polling from Ipsos-Reid, conducted more than a week ago (an eternity in the exhausting cycle of outrages and apologies from the Toronto mayor), suggested that the hard core of Ford Nation has dwindled to some 20 per cent of the electorate, and at best no more than a third of it. By now, it could very well be even less than that.

These are no longer election-winning numbers, and the last holdouts of Ford Nation have no other options on the ballot. It stretches the imagination to think that Rob Ford's remaining supporters would cast a ballot for New Democrats or Liberals because either Hudak or Harper came out strongly against the mayor. They might stay home, but it is equally unimaginable that Ford would be their ballot box issue in a wider provincial or federal election taking place in another six months to two years from now.

Federal Conservatives are somewhat more inoculated from the goings-on in City Hall than the provincial Tories, though the prime minister has probably been photographed far too often at the mayor's side for his liking.

Jason Kenney's words yesterday were notable mostly for how they contrasted with the reticence of Harper to let his thoughts be known. The loyalty of Finance Minister Jim Flaherty is understandable, considering his long-standing personal relationship with the Ford family.

But the sincerity of the concerns the federal Tories have raised is lessened by their somewhat tortured roping-in of Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau's marijuana admission. The longer the party refrains from a strong stance, the greater the possibility that Canadians begin to believe Conservatives have a double-standard when it comes to their friends.

But unlike their provincial counterparts, federal Tories have not entertained the possibility of Doug Ford, a city councillor and the mayor's brother, taking up the party banner in a Toronto-area riding.

Far from the star candidate Tories consider him to be, Doug Ford is an extremely risky person to tout as a future provincial cabinet minister. The last few weeks have shown what kind of loose cannon he can be, and a 30-day campaign would provide ample opportunity for the Ford brothers to put their feet in their mouths and trip up Hudak.

As Paul Wells recently opined in Maclean's, Hudak would have so much more to gain by denouncing the Fords more clearly and ruling out the possibility of Doug Ford as a candidate for his party in the next election.

By forcefully distancing himself from someone like Doug Ford, Hudak would, by comparison, make himself seem more moderate and palatable to the centrist voters he actually needs to win the next election. By not ruling out the possibility of a Doug Ford candidacy, Hudak instead appears to be lacking good judgment.

The next provincial election in Ontario was already going to be a difficult one for Hudak, who polls show has yet to connect with voters on a personal level. By trying to keep onside with the remnants of Ford Nation for the sake of a seat or two in Toronto, Hudak risks losing it all.

Éric Grenier taps The Pulse of federal and regional politics for Huffington Post Canada readers every week. Grenier is the author of ThreeHundredEight.com, covering Canadian politics, polls and electoral projections.

Also on HuffPost

Photo gallery The Many Faces Of Rob Ford See Gallery