Ontario's governing Liberals won a midtown Toronto by-election race last night, cruising to victory despite spending scandals that have dogged Premier Dalton McGuinty all summer.
Eric Hoskins, a 48-year-old family physician, replaces former cabinet minister Michael Bryant, who left provincial politics in June, in the riding of St. Paul's.
"I am very excited about this new adventure," Dr. Hoskins said at his jam-packed victory party at a Toronto pub.
He was introduced to the cheering crowd of Liberal supporters by Mr. McGuinty.
"It's my great honour to introduce our St. Paul's champion," the jubilant Premier said.
Dr. Hoskins won by a wide margin in a Liberal stronghold that had been held by Mr. Bryant for 10 years. Mr. Bryant won the seat three times before leaving the government to run Toronto Mayor David Miller's new economic development agency. He stepped down from the agency this month after he was charged in the death of cyclist Darcy Allan Sheppard.
Dr. Hoskins was in a hotly contested race with Progressive Conservative candidate Sue-Ann Levy, 52, a columnist at the Toronto Sun. NDP candidate Julian Heller, a lawyer, came in third.
Dr. Hoskins won 13,192 votes, leaving him well ahead of Ms. Levy, who won 7,851 votes, based on results from all 238 polls posted on Elections Ontario's website early Friday morning. Mr. Heller received 4,677 votes. Turnout was low at the polls, with only about 25 per cent of the 82,500 eligible voters casting ballots.
The fact that Dr. Hoskins won by a wide margin in a Liberal stronghold shows that the spending scandals dogging the McGuinty government did not resonate on the doorsteps of voters, observers said.
David Docherty, a professor of political science at Wilfrid Laurier University, said he expected voters would have punished the Liberals over scandals at eHealth Ontario and the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp. that have left the McGuinty government on the defensive for months. "People are thinking that this is a government that did not do enough to get out in front of this, that they were just kind of turning a blind eye to what was going on in these arm's length agencies," Prof. Docherty said before the outcome of last night's by-election.
Tim Woolstencroft, managing partner with the Strategic Counsel polling firm, cautioned about reading too much into the results.
"By-elections are not a good predictor of general elections," he said.
Ms. Levy and Mr. Heller campaigned hard to turn the by-election into a referendum on the McGuinty government's plans to harmonize the provincial sales tax with the federal goods and services tax. But the blended tax does not take effect until next July, and there are few indications that most Ontarians have yet to seriously consider how it will affect them. The tax will result in higher prices on everything from haircuts to lawyers' fees, but it will lower costs for businesses.
The by-election results do not gloss over challenges confronting the McGuinty government, Prof. Docherty said.
After six years in power, Mr. McGuinty has lost control of his own agenda as he deals with revelations uncovered by the Tories of lavish wining and dining by employees at two of his government's arm's length agencies, he said.
Mr. McGuinty told reporters last night that the results indicate that voters think his government is moving in the right direction.
"Elections are always more complicated than one particular issue," he said. "I guess people want to know, 'what's our record.' We've been around for six years. Our record is inescapable."
This was the second by-election race since the Liberals cruised to 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.
The Liberals now have 72 of the 107 seats in the legislature, the Tories 25 and the NDP 10.