Maybe it's Kathleen Wynne who should start to worry what by-election results say about her leadership, or the state of her party.
For years, Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak has been the one facing questions about his inability to pick up seats between general campaigns. There are more of those following a pair of such contests on Thursday, because the Tories failed to capitalize on the departure of veteran Liberal MPP Kim Craitor in Niagara Falls – instead watching the NDP lay claim to a riding in which Mr. Hudak grew up.
But at least the Official Opposition, which held onto the Thornhill riding vacated by former PC MPP Peter Shurman, has no fewer seats now than before. The same can't be said for the Liberals. And while there are the usual caveats about by-elections not necessarily reflecting the sentiments of the broader electorate, the governing party has cause to be very concerned about the patterns.
Seven of Ontario's 107 seats have been contested since Ms. Wynne became Premier a year ago. Six of those were long held by the Liberals. And despite Ms. Wynne's apparent personal popularity, they have lost all but two of them.
That has a return for the Liberals to majority government looking a lot more improbable than it did coming out of the 2011 election – and not only because they're now five seats shy, rather than just one. On Thursday, two very different ridings offered two different reasons for the Liberals to be pessimistic.
In Niagara Falls, they got another reminder of what rough shape they're in outside the Greater Toronto Area and a couple of other urban centres. Their third-place finish was so widely predicted that it barely raised any eyebrows on Thursday night when their candidate got less than 20 per cent of the vote, which is fairly remarkable considering this was a riding the Liberals had held since winning power in 2003.
When something similar happened last summer in the riding of London West, the Liberals could blame a bad choice of candidate in former teachers' union president Ken Coran. When they were decimated that same day in Dwight Duncan's old Windsor-Tecumseh seat, they could at least say they conceded the riding early. In Niagara Falls they campaigned hard, with a credible candidate, so the excuse is that it wasn't really a Liberal seat to begin with because Mr. Craitor was a maverick who won mostly on his own name.
But there is a common theme that when they lose long-time MPPs in these places, their party's brand isn't strong enough to compete – a problem for them considering at least a couple more caucus members won't seek re-election. And beyond that, the margins by which they're losing by-elections in south-central and southwestern Ontario in suggests even their few remaining incumbents there are going to be in tough.
Knowing this, Ms. Wynne's campaign team is pegging its hopes for holding onto power in the coming general campaign (let alone winning back a majority) on sweeping the GTA. That means not just keeping the 30 seats they currently hold in Toronto and its suburbs, but also claiming a handful held there by the opposition parties – which is why the other by-election result on Thursday was no less worrisome for them than Niagara Falls.
Ms. Wynne called the Thornhill by-election quicker than needed because her strategists thought it was ripe for the picking, and with good reason. Mr. Shurman, who won by fewer than 2,800 votes in 2011, left following an expenses controversy and has been a vocal critic of Mr. Hudak since. His replacement as PC candidate, Gila Martow, had less profile and less polish than the Liberals' Sandra Yeung. The NDP barely ran a campaign there at all, reducing the risk of any left-of-centre vote-splitting. The Tories were the only party that had to spread resources among two ridings in which they had a legitimate shot, which should have allowed the Liberals to outflank them in the one where they were competitive.
That the Liberals still couldn't win that seat raises serious doubts about their ability to take away many others, either. For all that talk about Ms. Wynne's personal appeal, it doesn't seem to be reaping much for them even on what they consider fertile ground.
Just why that is, the Liberals will be left to consider in what could be a very short run-up to a spring election.
Clearly, getting beyond the baggage left behind by former premier Dalton McGuinty has proven harder than they expected or hoped. At the same time, a series of tactical mistakes in these by-elections – including, in this case, allowing a campaign in a heavily Jewish riding to coincide with Prime Minister Stephen Harper's visit to Israel, and continuing to expend resources on Niagara Falls long past the point it was clearly out of reach – has to cause some anxiety about the readiness of Ms. Wynne's machine for a province-wide battle.
Amid recent rumblings of turmoil within the Premier's office, some Liberal fingers will be pointed in the weeks ahead. And meanwhile, that map of theirs just keeps on shrinking.
Adam Radwanski is The Globe's columnist covering Ontario politics.