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Radwanski: Ontario Tories brace for bleak results in by-elections

A handful of Liberal seats will be up for grabs in less than a month, and Tim Hudak's Progressive Conservatives don't expect to win a single one of them.

That, at least, is the word coming out of Ontario's Official Opposition in advance of Wednesday's announcement that five by-elections will be held on Aug. 1. And while lowering expectations is a time-honoured tradition for politicians, Mr. Hudak has particularly good reason to do so.

Of the province's three major party leaders, Mr. Hudak is the likeliest to be left without a positive spin to put on the Tories' results in the mid-term contests. And if his party is not prepared for that, it could add to unrest about his leadership heading into the next general campaign.

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Such a reaction would not be entirely fair. It's the Liberals who stand to actually lose seats this summer, and they're all but conceding Dwight Duncan's old Windsor-Tecumseh seat to the third-party NDP. Yet if they're able to hold on to three or four – and the Toronto ridings of Scarborough-Guildwood and Etobicoke-Lakeshore should give them a pretty good start – Premier Kathleen Wynne will be able to argue it's proof of her party's enduring appeal even after Dalton McGuinty's ugly exit.

At least a couple of the seats up for grabs, though, are the sort Mr. Hudak would need to take in order to win majority government. And many Tories might understandably struggle to understand why their party couldn't win a riding like London West, which it held through the Mike Harris era and which is now facing the by-election because former energy minister Chris Bentley was thrown under the proverbial bus during the gas-plants scandal.

A big part of the problem for Mr. Hudak is that, anticipating a general election last spring, the Tories were quicker than the other parties to nominate candidates in each riding. Those flag-bearers would have been perfectly adequate to fill out slates during a provincewide campaign, and might make good MPPs. But by-elections typically place much more emphasis on local profile and organization, and the PC candidates have less of it than the other parties' recent recruits.

In London, which could shape up as a three-way race, the Liberals have controversially enlisted former teachers' union president Ken Coran; the NDP is fielding former school board chair Peggy Sattler; the Tories have Ali Chahbar, a young lawyer who also ran for them last time. In Etobicoke and Scarborough, the Liberals are running city Councillor Peter Milczyn and CivicAction CEO Mitzie Hunter; the Tories have police officer Steve Ryan and real-estate agent Ken Kirupa. In Ottawa South, a high-profile candidate might have helped Mr. Hudak score a major victory by claiming Mr. McGuinty's old riding, but salesman Matt Young does not fit the bill.

Those local candidates, though, won't get blamed if the Tories get skunked. That honour would more likely go to Mr. Hudak, with critics pointing to his low personal numbers holding his party back – a refrain already common among frustrated supporters of a party that has spent a decade in the political wilderness.

To the extent that leaders matter during by-elections, getting shut out would represent yet more comeuppance for Mr. Hudak's bad introduction to voters back in 2011. His hope is to properly reintroduce himself to voters during the next general campaign, but the by-elections threaten to make the road up to then even rockier for him.

The inherent unpredictability means the Tories could yet defy their own predictions this summer. Mr. Chahbar, for instance, could take the stage as the hometown hero when the Tories meet for a convention in London this September. But to reduce the risk of that gathering getting ugly, Mr. Hudak will keep any such optimism to himself.

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About the Author
Political Feature Writer

Adam Radwanski is The Globe and Mail's political feature writer. More

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