Kathleen Wynne should consider herself very fortunate.
Her government has spent the past couple of years swamped in scandal. It is awash in red ink, with little apparent plan to get out of it. It has presided over one of the grimmest economic periods in Ontario’s history. It is the sort of government, in other words, that could very easily be swept out of office.
Yet, a month after the province’s election campaign unofficially began, and with less than two weeks until election day, most opinion research suggests Ms. Wynne’s Liberals have a very real shot of winning back power.
The polls are too all over the map to say how good a shot, precisely. But so far, it has been almost exactly the campaign Ms. Wynne wanted – one in which she has the opportunity to rally centre-left voters behind her in a perceived two-way battle against Tim Hudak’s Progressive Conservatives.
Ms. Wynne’s campaign team deserves a bit of her gratitude for that. Considering there was almost complete behind-the-scenes turnover after she inherited the Liberal leadership from Dalton McGuinty, its operations have been remarkably smooth.
More of her thanks, though, should be directed toward the province’s other two major parties.
For her strategy to have any chance of success, she needed Tim Hudak to polarize the electorate as much as possible. The PC Leader has followed that script to a letter, running on a platform that includes sweeping public-sector job cuts – the sort of thing with the potential to excite his base and scare everyone else.
Mr. Hudak has his own reasons for campaigning that way, beyond the very good one that it’s in line with his own values. His Tories are operating from the premise that their key to victory is motivating and mobilizing existing supporters more than trying to win over new ones. But that’s partly based on the expectation of vote-splitting on the left – and that’s where the third party has really helped out Ms. Wynne.
If Andrea Horwath had come charging out of the gate, making a strong impression on the large number of voters open to casting ballots for either Liberals or New Democrats, Ms. Wynne would have been in very big trouble. Instead, the NDP Leader appeared bafflingly unprepared for a campaign she herself decided to trigger, lacking a good explanation for why she rejected a decidedly left-leaning budget and squandering the spotlight that was on her in the campaign’s first days.
Ms. Horwath has never really reclaimed it since. Her platform is sufficiently lacking in attention-grabbing ideas that she has been marginalized in the public debate between Ms. Wynne and Mr. Hudak. And while the other two parties have been flooding the airwaves with advertising, the New Democrats seem to be spending less money.
The NDP’s efforts are targeted at relatively few ridings, largely in the province’s southwest. That approach could net Ms. Horwath some gains, but leaves the Liberals with little competition in the pivotal Greater Toronto Area ridings where they’re battling Tories.
Ms. Horwath will have a chance to make a bigger impression during Tuesday’s leaders’ debate. And that event could throw the Liberals’ campaign off course in other ways, too.
Ms. Wynne, untested in that format, could falter. The gas-plant scandal could become more of a factor. The return of the troubled Ornge air-ambulance service to the news, because of reported labour-code charges related to a crash last year, will provide further opportunity for the other parties to remind voters of Liberal baggage. This week’s story of a planned government bailout of the MaRS research facility in Toronto could prove to have legs.
In short, the Liberals’ record could yet prove insurmountable. But as they gamed out scenarios for this campaign, Ms. Wynne and her advisers couldn’t possibly have imagined surmounting it any more than they have so far.