Premier Kathleen Wynne has extended the Liberals' decade-long rule of Ontario, winning a majority mandate for her ambitious agenda of transit building and a provincial pension plan – the largest new social program in a generation.
Her leftist campaign – which portrayed her as a sunny, energetic intellectual while attacking Tim Hudak's Progressive Conservative plan to slash 100,000 jobs from the public sector – allowed her to overcome her party's baggage, particularly the billion-dollar cancellations of two gas-fired power plants.
Her against-the-odds victory comes at a pivotal time for Canada's largest province, whose economy is still uncertain five years after the recession and that faces a massive deficit. Ms. Wynne vowed to reconvene the legislature within twenty days to reintroduce her budget, which was rejected by the other parties last month, bringing about the snap vote.
She is counting on increased infrastructure spending, $29-billion for new subways and highways over 10 years, to stimulate the economy.
But how she will balance the books, which are $12.5-billion in the red, is an open question, and may require painful austerity that she has not yet spelled out.
The election, which was too close to call in the final days, was not even close.
Ms. Wynne's Liberals utterly dominated Toronto and the surrounding suburbs, and appeared poised to make gains in both.
The PCs looked set to lose seats on the back of Mr. Hudak's hard-right platform, while Andrea Horwath's New Democrats made modest gains.
The Grits jumped out to a lead almost as soon as the polls closed at 9 p.m. and never lost it through the night. Around 9:30, as it became clear they would win at least a minority, supporters began to filter into Ms. Wynne's victory party in a downtown Toronto hotel ballroom, where the Premier was expected to speak later in the evening. They burst into a sustained, minute-long cheer at 10 p.m. when it was obvious Ms. Wynne had won a majority.
"Thank you for voting to build Ontario up. And let me tell you – your government is ready to do exactly that," Ms. Wynne told the cheering supporters, most of whom did not expect such a good result. "And let me tell you: we are going to build Ontario up for everyone in the province."
Ms. Wynne – the province's first female Premier and the first openly gay first minister in Canada – spent much of her speech highlighting themes of inclusivity.
"This is a beautiful, inclusive place we live in, Ontario. And I want us every day to treasure that," she said. "Ontarians do not hold prejudice in their hearts – we have so proven that tonight."
In the province's most starkly contrasting campaign in a generation, Mr. Hudak ran as far right as Ms. Wynne ran left. The Tories promised public-sector job cuts, to slash corporate taxes to the lowest level in North America and kill business subsidies.
Most of the Liberal campaign was designed to make the election a referendum on Mr. Hudak, with Ms. Wynne urging centrist and left-leaning voters to rally around her to stop him.
In the quaint country hall in Grimsby, Ont. where the PCs hosted its election party, there were tears and shouts of disappointment as the Tory Leader announced his resignation.
"We ran a campaign of hope because I have boundless hope for Ontario," Mr Hudak said as the sombre group cheered him on. "I truly believe that our best days are yet to come."
Andrea Horwath's NDP, meanwhile, looked set to lose some seats to the Liberals but gain others from the PCs.
The party, which triggered the election last month by rejecting Ms. Wynne's budget, had high hopes of attracting Grit voters disaffected by the gas-plant cancellations, which were widely seen as political moves to save Liberal seats in the 2011 election.
But Ms. Horwath's campaign failed to catch fire. As she became increasingly desperate to peel away Liberals in recent days, she opted for an all-out assault on Ms. Wynne's party, branding it "corrupt." The strategy appeared to half-work, but she is certain to face renewed discontent from her left-wing base, which criticized her during the election for abandoning the party's traditional focus on big picture policy.
"The people of the province made their choice based on a number of different issues. And now that they've made that choice, my job is to respect that choice," Ms. Horwath said at a suburban convention centre in Hamilton.
Ms. Wynne, running her first campaign since taking over from Dalton McGuinty early last year, spent much of the election trying to take the focus off her party's scandals and redirect it into a choice between her and Mr. Hudak.
With reports from Kaleigh Rogers in Grimsby, Ont. and Susan Krashinsky in Hamilton