Ontario's governing Liberals won a Toronto by-election Thursday night, cruising to an easy victory despite discontent over Premier Dalton McGuinty's sales tax reforms.
Glen Murray, a 52-year-old former mayor of Winnipeg, won by a wide margin in a hard-fought race in the sprawling riding of Toronto Centre, where he replaces former deputy premier George Smitherman.
Mr. Murray won 46 per cent of the votes, leaving his rivals trailing well behind. The New Democrats' Cathy Crowe came in second with 34 per cent of the votes and the Progressive Conservatives' Pamela Taylor was in third place with 16 per cent.
"What a wonderful way to begin Ontario politics in 2010," a jubilant Mr. McGuinty said at a downtown Toronto bar, where he declared victory an hour after the polls closed.
Toronto Centre has been a Liberal stronghold since 1999, when Mr. Smitherman was first elected to the legislature. In the 2007 election, he won the seat by an enormous margin of 12,400 votes.
The outcome of Thursday night's decisive win will resonate well beyond the riding, revealing that the Liberals retain their strong grip on power.
"Premier, we promised you a hat trick," Mr. Murray said in his victory speech to the cheers of dozens of his new Liberal colleagues.
Much like the by-election race in the midtown Toronto riding of St. Paul's last September when Liberal candidate Eric Hoskins cruised to victory, the harmonized sales tax did not appear to resonate this time either.
Mr. Murray inherited much of the Liberal campaign machinery when Mr. Smitherman resigned last month to jump into the race for Toronto mayor.
Mr. Murray was in a tight, two-way race with Ms. Crowe, a street nurse, in the diverse riding's less affluent south and with Ms. Taylor, a lawyer, in the well-heeled neighbourhoods north of the Rosedale Ravine.
Ms. Crowe and Ms. Taylor, both 57, campaigned hard to turn the race into a referendum on the harmonized tax, which will raise prices on everyday goods ranging from haircuts to gasoline and condominium fees when it comes into effect on July 1. All three candidates acknowledged that the new levy, which blends the 5-per-cent federal goods and services tax with the 8-per-cent provincial sales tax, has been a hot topic in the Toronto Centre by-election campaign.
Despite what Mr. Murray's rivals described as mounting concern over the tax among both residents of tony Rosedale and poor neighbourhoods in Regent Park, it was not enough to loosen the Liberals' grip on the riding.
Toronto Centre was the third by-election race since the Liberals won a second majority in the 2007 provincial election. Former Progressive Conservative Leader John Tory was defeated in the Lindsay-area riding of Haliburton-Kawartha Lakes-Brock last March.
Mr. McGuinty governs with a strong mandate - he is only the first Liberal Premier in 70 years to win back-to-back majorities.
The government faces two more by-election tests next month in Ottawa West-Nepean and Leeds-Grenville. The seats were vacated by Liberal Jim Watson, who is running for mayor of Ottawa, and long-time Tory Bob Runciman, who was appointed to the Senate.
The Liberals have 71 of the 107 seats in Ontario, the Tories, 24, and the NDP, 10. Two seats are vacant.