Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader John Tory was defeated in a by-election race last night, leaving his political career in tatters.
"Obviously, I am very disappointed by the results today, but the voters can never be wrong in what they decide and I respect their decision," Mr. Tory said in conceding defeat.
The sense of disappointment was palpable among his supporters, who had gathered in a Lindsay restaurant for what was to be a victory party. Mr. Tory, 54, was counting on a victory in the Lindsay-area riding of Haliburton-Kawartha Lakes-Brock to pave the way for what was to be his triumphant return to the Ontario Legislature. With those hopes now dashed, he will have little choice but to bow out, marking a bitter end to his four-and-a-half-year reign as leader of the party.
After delivering his speech, Mr. Tory abruptly left the podium without answering questions from the media. He plans to discuss his future at a news conference today.
Mr. Tory's defeat is all the more stunning because he lost in a riding that has been a Conservative stronghold since 1994. Liberal Rick Johnson won the by-election with 15,378 votes - 894 more than Mr. Tory received.
Mr. Tory was gracious in defeat, making the short walk to Mr. Johnson's victory party at a downtown pub to congratulate him and wish him good luck.
The stakes were enormously high for Mr. Tory, who has been in the political wilderness since his defeat in the 2007 provincial election.
He fought a hard battle. Since the writ for the by-election was dropped on Feb. 4, he has spent almost every day in the sprawling rural riding. His jam-packed itinerary included meeting everyone from farmers to home builders, health- care workers and even the 80 women who make up the Buckhorn Quilters.
The riding, one of the poorest in the province, was not seen as a natural fit for the independently wealthy former business executive who is closely associated with Toronto. But what appeared to seal his defeat was the sense that he was using the riding to further his own political career and, in the process, supplanting someone with deep roots in the community.
Progressive Conservative MPP Laurie Scott resigned the seat in January so Mr. Tory could run in the by-election. She had captured half of the ballots cast in the 2007 election and was enormously popular during the six years she held the seat. Her father, Bill Scott, was the local Member of Parliament for 28 years.
Mr. Johnson, a school trustee, said the local issue played a huge role in his win. He campaigned on his commitment to the community.
"You can't take advantage of people," he told reporters. "People want local representation."
In his concession speech, Mr. Tory paid tribute to Ms. Scott. "The respect and affection I saw for you in every corner of this riding is the greatest testament to your service anyone could ever receive," he said.
Since the provincial election, Mr. Tory has been under pressure from many party members to either win a seat or resign as leader. After becoming party Leader in September, 2004, he won a by-election in 2005 in the Orangeville-area riding of Dufferin-Peel-Wellington-Grey. But he gave up that riding to run against Education Minister Kathleen Wynne in Don Valley West in the provincial election.
Mr. Tory lost to Ms. Wynne over his controversial campaign promise to publicly fund religious schools. Many party members were angry that he squandered an opportunity to win the election or at least reduce the governing Liberals to minority status - he went into the race ahead of Premier Dalton McGuinty in personal popularity. Only two-thirds of party delegates endorsed his leadership at a review following the election.
Mr. Tory's fortunes began to turn around in January, when Ms. Scott gave up her seat for him.
But the Liberals poured more effort than usual into the by-election, with visits to the riding by Mr. McGuinty, as well as several cabinet ministers.
Also in the running were seven other candidates, including Lyn Edwards, a union leader representing the New Democrats, and Mike Schreiner of the Green Party.
Mr. McGuinty issued a statement last night congratulating Mr. Johnson.