Andrew Scheer campaigns in vote-rich Ontario without Doug Ford

Where’s Doug Ford? That was one of the more persistent questions hurled at Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer during his mini-tour through Ontario and the Greater Toronto Area in the early days of the federal election campaign.

Ontario’s Progressive Conservative premier was absent from all of Scheer’s appearances, including his Ontario kickoff in Vaughan-Woodbridge and Etobicoke, where Ford holds his provincial seat.

It has raised questions as to whether Scheer, in this election campaign, is deliberately avoiding Ford, who has seen his popularity drop since his own election in June 2018.

“I think that would be an error,” said Conservative supporter Walter Simone, an insurance broker who attended the Scheer rally in Woodbridge, Ont., last week. “Because a lot of Ford supporters are Conservatives and you don’t want to tick them off saying, ‘Hey, I’m not agreeing with what the provincial premier is doing.'”

Kevin Yeung, who was also in Woodbridge to show support for Scheer, said he too believes it would be a mistake for the federal Conservative leader to keep his distance.

“I think he should reach out,” Yeung said. “I think if Scheer really wants to win a majority in Ontario, I think he should really stand by Ford.”

But not every Conservative supporter agrees, with some saying they could understand why Scheer may have some trepidation about being seen with Ford.

‘It is a negative’

“We all know Ford hasn’t communicated as well as he should have,” said David Dawson, from Hamilton. “And it is a negative​​​.

“I will not suspect you will see Doug Ford standing on a stage — and if it is, it’s only once.”

Keeping away from Ford would be in contrast to Scheer’s predecessor, Stephen Harper, who in the dying days of the 2015 election race attended a rally sponsored by both Rob and Doug Ford. He had seemingly hoped — some argued in desperation — to tap into the voter base of so-called Ford Nation, harnessing some of its fervent Toronto support.

In this election, People’s Party of Canada Leader Maxime Bernier has also hoped to exploit the Ford name, launching his campaign from the Etobicoke North headquarters of his star candidate, Renata Ford, widow of the late Rob Ford.

But as Vassy Kapelos, host of CBC’s Power & Politics, recently noted, some federal Conservatives have been telling people privately that if the party does lose the election, it will be due to Doug Ford.

Meanwhile, when asked, Scheer has brushed off suggestions that he’s deliberately avoiding the Ontario premier.

“That’s just completely false,” he said in Mississauga, Ont., last week. “We’re going to be all over the province of Ontario and the people who have worked to replace Liberals at the provincial level are obviously going to work to replace Liberals at the federal level.”

‘I’m busy governing’

Ford himself addressed the issue on Tuesday at a rural expo in northern Ontario. When questioned about whether Scheer’s campaign had contacted him, Ford replied, “Can’t say they have.”

“I’m busy governing,” he then said. “It’s a full-time job. I always joke around, they’re working me like a rented mule this whole summer. Honestly, I just haven’t had time. I don’t want to interfere in the federal election. I want them to go out there and have a good race and let the best party win.”

So far, none of the conservative premiers in the provinces where Scheer has appeared have campaigned with the Conservative leader.

But what may make Ford’s absence more significant is that part of the Liberal campaign, in their quest to win vote-rich Ontario, has been to link Ford with Scheer, arguing the Conservative leader will govern much like the Ontario premier.

Controversial actions by Ford, including cuts to services in the province, have been followed by plunging poll numbers. Even before the federal election call, it has prompted Liberals to try and tie the two together, casting them as political soulmates.

Last month, for example, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau spoke how the middle class can’t “afford another Doug Ford” during a rally of Liberal candidates.

And, at least in the short term, that link may be working, suggested one Conservative supporter.

Neil McAlister, who is on the board of the Durham Conservative Association, said that through knocking on doors, he’s learning that the Liberals seem to be doing a good job of confusing voters about provincial and federal government responsibilities.

“I have had people who ought to know better, when I knock on the door, who say, ‘We’re school teachers so we won’t vote Conservative.’ Well, education is a provincial responsibility and the federal government has nothing to do with that,” he said.

“I talk to people who do not understand that the Conservative Party of Canada is a different political party from the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario.”

Kathy Brock, a political scientist at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., said it’s still difficult to say if the Liberal strategy of linking Ford to Scheer will ultimately succeed in scaring votes away from the Conservatives.

“In the 905 area, there’s a large swath of people who support Doug Ford still,” Brock said. “In some of the other ridings, where people are a little disaffected or feel he hasn’t represented them, it might cost Scheer.”

Little to do with popularity of Ford

Brock said she understands why Scheer would be distancing himself from Ford — and it may not necessarily have to do with the premier’s popularity issues.

“I think he is trying to establish his own identity and make it clear that he is not Doug Ford, he is not Stephen Harper,” she said. So it’s not necessarily distancing himself from the others, but it’s establishing his own ideas and vision in the public mind. That’s what a leader’s got to do if he wants to be prime minister of Canada.”

And while former Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne actively campaigned for Trudeau in 2015, that’s rare, said Brock.

Premiers and prime ministers often have to be allies, but also antagonists,” she said. “For premiers to get as involved as say Kathleen Wynne was in the last election, that’s anomalous. That’s unusual.”

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