Five. There are a total of five by-elections in the province of Ontario now scheduled for August 1. The ridings of Etobicoke-Lakeshore, Scarborough-Guildwood, Ottawa South, Windsor and London West will all be going to the polls in the dog days of summer in what will be a referendum on the relatively brief premiership of Kathleen Wynne seeing as how all five of the seats were once held by Liberals.
The flip side for Wynne is that she has boldly decided to run those by-elections the middle of summer. The old advertising axiom that you don't introduce new product in August is just as apt in politics as it is anywhere else, and by scheduling five potentially devastating by-elections in the time of beach weather is not only a cynical move on the part of Wynne, it's also a shrewd one. Now that's not to say that it's right or it's wrong, but the short election window and the timing of the vote on a Thursday just before a summer long weekend, Wynne has definitely stacked the deck in a political astute, if perhaps ethically dubious, way.
The seats in question, for the most part, belonged to former cabinet members. People will be voting to replace former premier Dalton McGuinty (Ottawa South), former finance minister Dwight Duncan (Windsor-Tecumseh), former energy minister Chris Bentley (London West), former education minister Laurel Broten (Etobicoke-Lakeshore) and Margarett Best (Scarborough-Guildwood), who have all resigned in the last couple months. By-elections tend not to favour the party in power, but at least a couple of these could and probably should swing the Grits' way. Ottawa South in particular, for which McGuinty sat for 23 years after his father held the seat for four years, will likely stay in the red.
But the real question is, how will the other four ridings go, and can the Tories make up any ground? An interesting editorial in the Globe and Mail suggests that Tim Hudak and the Progressive Conservatives have been so focused on the big picture of a general election they've been caught relatively unprepared to fight these smaller, local battles. In the riding of London West for instance, what was once a PC stronghold in the Mike Harris years may end up being a three-way race with former teachers’ union president Ken Coran running for the Liberals, former school board chair Peggy Sattler representing the NDP and lawyer Ali Chahbar running for the second time as the Tories' nominee. The contest between two representatives of the teaching profession in Ontario will probably draw a lot of attention to those candidates, and the recent closure of a CAT plant in the area will probably also help galvanize political action by the unions, and help freeze the Tories out.
In the Toronto riding of Etobicoke-Lakeshore, the PCs and Hudak may be looking to Deputy-Mayor Doug Holyday to run and form an effective beachhead for the party to make a run at the city in the next general. The question is though, will Rob Ford's recent troubles stick to Holyday, and are enough people in that riding fed up with those shenanigans to rally against Holyday and behind one of the other candidates. Either way, Tory victories in Toronto are a difficult proposition under the best of circumstances, so right off the mark, Hudak and his party are facing an uphill battle on four out five of the by-election ridings.
But even though we're talking about August by-elections, make no mistake, we're talking about big consequences for the province. For Wynne, a victory in at least three out of five ridings will mean a vindication, and perhaps a bit of breathing room when the legislature sits again in the fall. For NDP leader Andrea Horwath a score of even two out of five will be good news for her, and give her even more leverage in pushing the NDP agenda with the government. For Hudak though, the situation is more perilous. Anything less than three seats won is going to look bad for him, and if the Globe analysis turns out right, then it's going to look even worse. Hudak already sits as the third of the three in terms of likability ratings of the major party leaders, if he still can't win in spite of all the anger/upset/disappointment in the Liberals, then the PCs will need to have a much bigger conversation about the direction of their party.
The next month should be fairly interesting despite the normally politically dormant summer. Stay tuned for developments as they happen.