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Why Hudak has reason to fear the Ontario by-elections

Ontario PC Leader Tim Hudak is shown in Toronto on Nov. 19, 2013.

Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

For Tim Hudak, "by-election" is a dirty word.

Already saddled with a grim record in such contests, the Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader suffered greatly for his party's showing in a slate of them last summer. Although the Tories arguably didn't do that badly, picking up one of the five seats held to that point by the governing Liberals, their failure to claim any of the other four prompted a mini-revolt against Mr. Hudak's leadership that generated weeks of bad press before being quashed at the PCs' September convention.

Now, Mr. Hudak faces the unwelcome prospect of more by-elections, giving his critics another chance to take aim at him – this time potentially just a couple of months before a general election to follow.

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Before the legislature returns on Feb. 18, a pair of votes will fill the vacant seats of Niagara Falls and Thornhill. The good news for the Tories is that of the three major parties, they probably have the best shot of winning both, which would offer a big momentum boost. The bad news is that there is also a decent chance they will get shut out, which, given the dynamics of the two ridings, would be very awkward for their leader.

Niagara Falls, represented by Liberal MPP Kim Craitor until he mysteriously resigned in the fall, looks at first glance like it should be the Tories' for the taking. In the last election, they came within 551 votes of winning it, and that was with a candidate who got unwanted attention for seemingly tweeting a photo of his own genitals. This time they'll have Bart Maves, the former MPP who held the riding before Mr. Craitor. While the Liberals recruited a stronger-than-expected candidate in city councillor Joyce Morocco, many in the governing party still don't seem very optimistic about their prospects.

The catch is that the Liberals seem to think it's the New Democratic candidate – possibly another city councillor, Wayne Gates – who has the best chance of beating them, and Tories concede that's a decent possibility. If that came to pass, it would be a repeat of what happened during that last round of by-elections in London West – the riding that caused Mr. Hudak the most grief, because it's the sort his party needs to win power.

Disappointing as it may be to fail to pick up Niagara Falls, Mr. Hudak will at least be able to claim a wash if his party retains Thornhill. But it's that riding, held from 2007 until the end of 2013 by former PC MPP Peter Shurman, that could make things really ugly.

Mr. Shurman's departure was precipitated by Mr. Hudak's decision to punt him from his shadow cabinet, following The Globe and Mail's revelation of the erstwhile finance critic's questionable expense practices. The demotion was a bold move by Mr. Hudak, considering that it came at the height of unrest about his leadership last September, and perhaps a correct one given that Mr. Shurman was effectively challenging his leader's authority by refusing to show much contrition. But it led some Tories to believe Mr. Shurman, who insisted Mr. Hudak's office knew about the expense practices before they were revealed, was thrown under the bus.

Considering both the recent controversy and the fact that unlike the Tories the Liberals have a high-profile candidate (local councillior Sandra Yeung Racco) lined up, officials in both parties believe the riding could well change hands. If so, that will leave Mr. Hudak with a lot of fingers pointed in his direction, especially since Thornhill is one of the very few ridings his party has held in the Greater Toronto Area – a region where it needs to be gaining traction in order to have a chance at power.

The requisite disclaimer is that, because of their lack of consequence and exaggerated emphasis on local issues and candidates, by-elections are not necessarily good indicators of what will happen in general campaigns. That's why the Liberals don't seem all that panicked about the possibility that they could go 0-for-2, even though it would be no less a bad sign for them than it would be for the Tories.

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The problem for Mr. Hudak, though, is that after more than a decade out of power his party is short on patience, and it's rife with malcontents ready to send friendly fire in his direction. As they demonstrated last year, those critics aren't necessarily looking for a perfect reason to go after him – just a plausible one.

Even if they get that opportunity again, they probably won't succeed in actually ousting Mr. Hudak. But they could at least cause talk-radio shows and the cover of the Toronto Sun to again be lit up with attacks on him, which is the last thing he'll need at a time when he'll be trying to get his party's base motivated for the main event.

No wonder Premier Kathleen Wynne is poised to call the by-elections before she has to do so, without waiting to see if the need for at least one of them could be averted by the general campaign. On paper, she has as much to lose as Mr. Hudak; in practice, unfair though it may be, nobody will be feeling the pressure as much as him.

Adam Radwanski is The Globe's columnist covering Ontario politics.

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