James Aylward emerged from Friday’s convention with a united party behind him – a huge bonus for the new leader. After 10 years of turmoil, the Progressive Conservative Party of P.E.I. is now focused on defeating the Liberal government instead of being distracted by lingering leadership issues.
Mr. Aylward will have scant time to relax after his five-month campaign where he faced a stiff battle from rookie MLA Brad Trivers and became a better candidate and now a more confident leader because of it.
It seems the Liberal government is fast-tracking a byelection in Charlottetown-Parkdale and the Tories must act quickly to prepare for that looming campaign. The new leader won’t be afforded much time to organize his office or adjust to his new position before being thrust back into campaign mode.
Mr. Aylward was considered the early favourite to lead the party after finishing behind Rob Lantz two years ago. He still had supporters, party machinery and experience at the ready.
Mr. Trivers put up a strong battle and presented himself as a very credible candidate. He had major obstacles to overcome, such as name recognition, money, volunteers and organization. He forced Mr. Aylward to take a stand on key issues and sharpen his positions. He made it an exciting race and deserves a lot of credit for his performance.
Until last week, both Conservative candidates thought they would have two years to prepare for an election. Now that time frame has been greatly reduced following the surprise resignation of Doug Currie. The Liberals will select a candidate next Monday and a byelection call is likely to follow immediately.
It shouldn’t be a huge transition for Mr. Aylward to move from leadership campaign into byelection mode. His battle skills have been sharpened during two leadership campaigns and a provincial election – all since late 2014. If the government thought they might catch the Tories off-guard, they won’t.
Mr. Aylward showed strength on key issues over the summer, especially with mental health, a topic that has moved into the forefront across the province. He was able to connect with families affected by mental health problems, to relate with their pain, their concerns and their needs.
The new PC leader has shown that once he presents himself at the local level, people quickly warm up to him. He is obviously popular in his Stratford-Kinlock district, winning comfortably in a tough race in 2015 against the town’s mayor.
As he addressed party delegates over the weekend, Mr. Aylward was well aware that now the real work begins. Besides the byelection, he must prepare for the opening of the legislature Nov. 14, recruit candidates, raise money and offer his party as a credible alterative to the Liberal government.
History is on Mr. Aylward’s side. It’s rare that any party earns four straight terms in office. The Liberals are deep into their third term and the October 2019 provincial election could really be considered Mr. Aylward’s to lose.