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Opinion Doug Ford’s sweeping win in Ontario is a model for populist Republicans

Ontario Premier Doug Ford at his party's election night watch party at the Toronto Congress Centre in Toronto on June 2. (Carlos Osorio/Reuters)
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Many Republicans dream of making the GOP a multiracial, working-class party. Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s smashing reelection victory Thursday gives them a great model to examine.

Ford is leader of the province’s main center-right party, the Progressive Conservatives. He has often been derided by his left-leaning foes as a bumbling populist or a “tin-pot Northern Trump.” He has also sparked criticism on the right for embracing lockdowns and vaccine passports as part of the province’s efforts to control covid-19. If these charges had merit, Ontario’s suburbanites and the hard right would have abandoned him in droves.

Instead, Ford swamped his foes left and right. The PCs won 83 of the province’s 124 seats, a seven-seat gain from his 2018 landslide. His party carried virtually every seat in its rural southern Ontario heartland, losing only one riding to an independent running with the outgoing PC member’s endorsement. The PCs also dominated suburban Toronto and won two seats in suburban Ottawa. Republicans would love to emulate this level of success in uniting rural and suburban voters in this year’s midterm elections.

Ford’s success with ethnic minorities and working-class voters is even more important to understand. A pre-election poll found the PCs winning among the province’s “visible minorities,” a Canadian term that covers “persons, other than Aboriginal peoples, who are non-Caucasian in race or non-white in colour.” The PCs carried every seat in minority-dominated Brampton and Mississauga, gaining three seats from the center-left New Democratic Party, and won four seats in Scarborough, a district of Toronto where minorities make up nearly 75 percent of the population. The PCs also carried union-heavy areas, such as Windsor-Tecumseh and Timmins, which the New Democratic Party had long dominated. The PCs won the endorsement of eight traditionally anti-PC trade unions in the process.

Ford Nation,” it seems, is a very inclusive movement.

Ford’s success isn’t hard to break down. He governs from the center-right, not the hard right. He expelled three members from the PC caucus who refused to support covid lockdowns or be vaccinated, as per party policy. Two formed new parties — the New Blue and Ontario parties — but those protests fizzled, winning only 4.5 percent of the vote and no seats. Ford eschewed supply-side ideology and adopted targeted tax cuts for the working class instead. He pushed back against a carbon tax and a Liberal Party-backed plan to implement a school curriculum that discussed topics such as gender identity in early grades.

Ford has also not been afraid to spend money. His latest budget envisions large capital expenditures for infrastructure projects, such as widening and building roads and expanding the region’s extensive rail and subway network. That has produced large deficits, although those will likely be smaller than projected as the provincial economy roars back from the pandemic. The upshot, as conservative commentator Sean Speer told me, is that Ford’s success shows “there is a political market for his mix of economic populism and cultural conservatism.”

Ford’s personal touch also cannot be overlooked. “He’s the sort of guy you might want to have a beer with,” Speer says. “God, you might have actually had a beer with him!”

That’s not surprising for a man whose 2018 campaign featured a pledge to reduce minimum prices at the provincial-owned liquor stores and bring back “a buck a beer.” When Toronto was hit by a large snowstorm in January, Ford drove around his neighborhood personally helping stranded motorists dig out their cars and ferry them to appointments.

An American version of “Ford Nation” would likely govern considerably to the right. Ontario does not have a long southern border that hundreds of thousands of people try to cross illegally each month. The United States also has cultural conflicts over Big Tech and abortion that are not as pressing in Canada, and the stronger anti-government tradition among American conservatives would also have an effect. Those factors would make a U.S. version of Ford’s campaign more confrontational in tone. And it would offer more red meat to the right, much as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) has done.

But American conservatives can learn from Ford’s willingness to shed conservative dogma to bring in new converts. Suburbanites tend to shy away from harsh religious rhetoric. And minorities and working-class voters tend to favor larger levels of government spending than traditional conservatives do. The GOP is sorely mistaken if it thinks it can take these people’s votes and discard their sentiments after the midterms.

Ford’s two landslide victories show it is possible to build a new, broad-based conservative majority. Anyone who wants to be the next Republican presidential nominee should take notes.