In some parts of Canada, provincial politics is the biggest game in town. Ontario is not one of those places. This is a province that follows federal politics first, and often municipal politics second. As a result, the provincial parties can find their images partially shaped by those of their cousins at other levels of government. And with elections at both those other levels in the past 12 months, those cousins have been making a lot of noise – not all of it welcome.
Relations between the federal and provincial Liberals have been strained for years, and there's little overlap between their senior ranks. But many voters closely associate them, and that could be bad news for Dalton McGuinty, given the collapse of the federal party's brand.
A particular concern for the Liberals is that many people who had voted Liberal all their lives, or since they got their citizenship, cast their ballots this past spring for one of the other parties federally. That could make it easier for them to do so provincially as well.
The fact that Bob Rae is now the leader of the federal Liberals is a further problem – all but making it impossible to score points against New Democrats by pointing to the unpopular provincial NDP government that Mr. Rae led.
On the bright side for Mr. McGuinty's party, the collapse of the federal Liberals has meant less competition for volunteers and fundraising dollars.
Stephen Harper's Conservatives have helped open all kinds of doors for Tim Hudak's party, including with immigrant voters in suburban battlegrounds.
But the strength of the federal party, combined with last year's mayoral victory by Rob Ford, could also be a weakness for the provincial one.
It may be coincidental that Ontarians have tended to keep different parties in power at the federal and provincial levels. But the prospect of a Conservative triple crown – something Mr. Harper, perhaps unhelpfully, called for at an event in Mr. Ford's backyard – is being used by the Liberals to try to scare voters. If nothing else, it could discourage the left-of-centre vote-splitting the Tories are counting on.
Federal Conservatives have still been welcomed by Mr. Hudak on the campaign trail, with Treasury Board President Tony Clement introducing him at an event in Ottawa and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney joining him on the hustings in Toronto. More worrisome for him may be the unpredictable Mr. Ford, with whom he has an uneasy relationship.
Although he still has many admirers, Mr. Ford will always be the target of attacks in the coming weeks over potentially unpleasant municipal cutbacks that he glossed over when seeking election last year. And before the campaign is out, the Toronto mayor will likely try to flex his muscle by endorsing Mr. Hudak – whether Mr. Hudak wants that endorsement or not.
At the start of the summer, this seemed to be the one party whose federal relations would have nothing but upside. Newly elected MPs would be able to lend their organizational help; meanwhile, Jack Layton would turn up at an event or two to lend his considerable popularity.
Mr. Layton's death has made matters much more complicated. The flood of goodwill toward the late federal leader has seemed to spill over to the provincial party – but nobody knows for how long. Meanwhile, a federal leadership campaign is cranking up.
Provincial New Democrats were among those lobbying the national party's executive to push the date of that contest well into the new year, and the date has indeed been set for late March rather than January or February. But that race's early stages could still prove a distraction over the next few weeks, dividing the attention of party activists. And if the leadership campaign turns nasty – which, based on some of the early jockeying, seems a good possibility – it could quickly erase the halo effect from Mr. Layton.
Still, the New Democrats remain the one party with much more to gain than lose from their federal ties, if only because the party Mr. Layton built is much more organizationally sophisticated than the one provincial leader Andrea Horwath is still building.