St. Paul's was a surprisingly strong win for the Liberals and their candidate, Dr. Eric Hoskins. There was copious media speculation that the Liberals were vulnerable to a loss here, and a tight race was expected.
Instead, the Liberals romped to victory.
First, this can be attributed to the single sales tax. Voters there were given all the facts (and a few stretched truths) by all the parties. They weighed the arguments and stuck with the Grits.
Part of this can also be attributed to the progressive nature of the riding. John Wright from Ipsos called it "left of centre" last night on City-TV. The riding is diverse and urbane, socially progressive and fiscally moderate. Despite voting for Mike Harris in 1995, its not a fertile ground for Tim Hudak's brand of rough edged Blue Toryism, showing the Progressive Conservatives will continue to find the 416 out of reach.
But it also remains a tough go for the NDP. The New Democrats poured all their organization from across the city in here and still landed in third. It is clear that if the NDP can't challenge in a progressive riding like St Paul's, they are still trapped in a handful of industrial and northern opportunities, despite their new leader.
A big chunk of credit goes to the candidate, who by all reports worked hard and impressed at the doors. That said, while Hoskins was clearly the pick of the crop, neither Sue-Ann Levy of the PCs nor Julian Heller of the NDP were low profile or low energy.
But the biggest factor in the election is Premier Dalton McGuinty.
All by-elections are to some extent a referendum on the government, and the premier or prime minister.
Six years after his move to the top job, and thirteen years after winning the leadership of his party, McGuinty is growing into Old Man Ontario. Adam Radwanski called him Premier Dad, and the moniker fits.
There is something essentially trustworthy about McGuinty that has allowed a summer of dismal spending decisions by agencies to slide off the Premier and his party. In focus groups and polls, voters continually affirm their view of McGuinty as ernest and well-meaning. This by-election shows that the public's affinity for McGuinty - long the underestimated overacheiver - remains strong.
The Health Premium was unpopular, but by the time of the election in 2007 enough voters respected McGuinty for making a tough decision that improved health and education that he won a second majority. The HST similarly earns McGuinty respect; even his opponents admit it is a gutsy move.
There is arguably no politician in Canada today with more political capital that Dalton McGuinty. Now its time for him to spend some.
The question is how McGuinty and his team react. If they see this as an excuse to slow things down, focus on what's on their plate and manage incremental change, they will lose in 2011.
The lesson is that big controversial change does not mean defeat if people trust your leader to work in their interest. Instead, the Liberals need to take this opportunity to put a summer scandal behind them, punch the gas and do more big things like the HST.
They need to deliver on full-day kindergarten, address the fiscal challenge and start getting out of some wasteful lines of business. They need to get their agencies focused on their core business instead of running golf courses. They need to review their assets and figure out what Ontario should really own and what it should just regulate. They need to move on protecting the public from both violent crime and unscrupulous businesses.
In short, this is an opportunity for activism, and an endorsement that activism is the road to success.
UPDATE Mr. Radwanski got the "Premier Dad" tag for Dalton McGuinty from Chris Selley (then at Maclean's, now with the Post).