Ontario Liberals will vote this weekend on who will lead them into the next election against Premier Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives, in a race that has reignited interest in the province’s former ruling party as best-known candidate Bonnie Crombie tries to stave off an upset from her two biggest rivals in the race.
The third-place Liberals, almost wiped out in the 2018 election, have been bolstered by two recent by-election wins and a leadership race that has attracted more than 103,000 members. Once derided by Mr. Ford as the “minivan party,” the Liberals have nine seats in the legislature, too big for most minivans but still a vastly diminished presence for a party that governed the province for 15 years.
There are four candidates vying to lead them: Ms. Crombie, the mayor of Mississauga; Nate Erskine-Smith, a Toronto Liberal MP; Yasir Naqvi, a former provincial cabinet minister who is also a Liberal MP; and Kingston and the Islands MPP Ted Hsu. A fifth candidate, Toronto MPP and emergency room doctor Adil Shamji, dropped out in September and endorsed Ms. Crombie.
Liberal members across the province will vote for the leader this weekend using a ranked ballot for the first time in the party’s history, with the winner announced in Toronto on Dec. 2. The party’s new system also weights all of the province’s 124 ridings equally, meaning the winner will need broad regional support.
Ms. Crombie, with the name-recognition in the Greater Toronto Area that comes with being Mississauga’s mayor, is widely seen as the front-runner and has raised more than $1.2-million, by far the most of the candidates.
Mr. Ford and his PCs have regularly singled out Ms. Crombie for criticism, something she has suggested is a sign they view her as a threat. Asked at a news conference on Friday if he was scared of the prospect of Ms. Crombie as Liberal leader, Mr. Ford responded: “No. Was that a joke? … I say bring it on.”
Ms. Crombie’s fundraising prowess has also rankled her closest rivals, Mr. Erskine-Smith and Mr. Naqvi. They have suggested she is too similar to Mr. Ford, whose government has been mired in a scandal over his now-rescinded move to open up parts of the province’s protected Greenbelt for housing, a plan the province’s Auditor-General said favoured a small group of connected real-estate developers and is now subject to an RCMP probe. Early in the campaign, Ms. Crombie said she was open to land swaps in the Greenbelt, but she has since vowed not to touch the protected area.
Mr. Erskine-Smith and Mr. Naqvi point to Ms. Crombie’s acceptance of large donations from developers – including some who had supported Mr. Ford. Mr. Naqvi has called Ms. Crombie “Doug Ford lite.” Ms. Crombie has defended her ability to raise money, saying it will be needed to compete with Mr. Ford in the next election.
Citing their similar approaches, Mr. Erskine-Smith and Mr. Naqvi recently urged supporters to mark one another as their second choice on the ranked ballot, in an effort to make it difficult for Ms. Crombie to win.
Dan Moulton, a former senior adviser to Liberal premiers and a partner at Crestview Strategy in Toronto, said the result has been an unpredictable race.
“It leads to a moment where really anything can happen,” Mr. Moulton said. “It certainly looks like Bonnie Crombie is going to perform very well. But I’ve not seen any compelling evidence that she is a surefire bet to win on the first ballot.”
The lower-profile Mr. Hsu largely stayed away from direct attacks on Ms. Crombie or his other rivals and tried to put forward a positive vision. In an interview, he said his team had seen a bump in support and fundraising in the race’s final week.
Ms. Crombie, who travelled to Thunder Bay, Kitchener and Ottawa in the past week, spent the campaign’s final days calling Liberal members.
“We have the support to win on the first ballot, but it’s crucial to get our vote out this weekend,” Ms. Crombie said in an interview.
She said she’s been focused on a “positive and energetic campaign” and chose not to attack her competitors during the race.
“Let’s reserve our fire for Doug Ford,” she said. “What I’m seeing is a really reinvigorated party. I’ll be honest, I’m delighted at the amount of energy that’s been put into the campaign, and the reaction of people.”
Mr. Naqvi’s team, however, says there is no clear front-runner.
According to an internal memo from campaign director Milton Chan, there has been no “meaningful polling” that suggests a front-runner.The memo says the team is focused on “high-impact” ridings, such as northern and rural ones and urban ridings with small membership lists.
In an interview, Mr. Naqvi – the MP for Ottawa Centre and a former attorney-general in premier Kathleen Wynne’s government – said no candidate would walk away with a win on the first ballot.
He defended his decision to target Ms. Crombie throughout the campaign. “I’ve been very clear in terms of my concerns about Mayor Crombie’s political vulnerabilities, in terms of her political instincts, and her political style and political friends, and I think, as I’ve said repeatedly, that it could really impact our chances of getting elected,” he said.
Mr. Erskine-Smith, an MP with a reputation for defying his party brass who represents Beaches-East York in Toronto, said he, too, expects that no candidate will come away with a majority on the first ballot. But he suggested he could start out ahead of Ms. Crombie, or close behind her in second.
In addition to appealing to rural and Northern areas, Mr. Erskine-Smith says the Liberals must make an effort to appeal to New Democrats and Greens who want to topple Mr. Ford.
“There are three not-Doug-Ford parties across Ontario,” he said in an interview as he headed to Sudbury this week for a final push. “We need to give people a positive reason to vote for us.”