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Adam Radwanski

Ryan Carter

Politics Insider delivers premium analysis and access to Canada's policymakers and politicians. Visit the Politics Insider homepage for insight available only to subscribers.

Kim Craitor was probably the most marginal member of the Ontario Liberals' caucus. Not serving even as a parliamentary assistant, he was rarely seen at Queen's Park other than for key votes; meanwhile, he would routinely criticize his own government while back in his riding of Niagara Falls.

Still, Mr. Craitor's sudden retirement last week was bad news for Kathleen Wynne's party, because it added to some very troublesome electoral math heading into a likely provincial campaign next spring.

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Although some would argue they'd be lucky to keep power at all, the Liberals' goal heading into that campaign will be to win back the majority government they fell just short of the last time Ontarians went to the polls, when they won 53 out of 107 seats. That may yet be possible, if popular support swings heavily in their favour. But if it proves the tightly-fought campaign that the polls suggest, it's increasingly hard to see how the Liberals would be able to scratch-and-claw their way back to 54 seats.

By the time Mr. Craitor made his exit, three by-election losses had already reduced the Liberals' seat count to fifty. Two of those losses, in Windsor-Tecumseh and in London West, were so definitive that it's hard to imagine the ridings swinging back to the Liberals anytime soon. Their chances will be slightly better in the Toronto riding of Etobicoke-Lakeshore, where newly-elected Progressive Conservative MPP Doug Holyday's star power may not matter quite as much in a general election, but the smart money would still be on the Tories to keep it.

Then there are at least a couple of ridings that even Liberals quietly acknowledge they'll almost certainly lose next election. One of those is Sudbury, where the decision by veteran MPP and former minister Rick Bartolucci not to run again has all but guaranteed a pick-up for the third-party NDP. Similarly, without Mr. Craitor – whose renegade status helped him squeak by with just a 551-vote margin last campaign – Niagara Falls is probably gone as well.

That would leave the Liberals needing at least six pick-ups to get up to that magic number of 54. And the possibilities on that front are rather limited.

Of the 37 seats currently held by the PCs, the suburban riding of Thornhill could be the Liberals' for the taking, particularly if incumbent Peter Shurman decides not to run again after being dumped from Tim Hudak's shadow cabinet because of an expenses controversy. The Liberals have also long had hopes for Halton, a once-rural riding that now looks more suburban, with demographic changes that could work in their favour. And they should be competitive in a couple of ridings the Tories claimed from them last time – notably the eastern-Ontario seat of Northumberland-Quinte West, where former MPP Lou Rinaldi plans to run again after losing by just a few hundred votes last time

Among the 20 seats held by the New Democrats, the pickings are even slimmer. Given Ms. Wynne's urban appeal, the Liberals should have a shot at picking up one or two downtown Toronto seats.

Otherwise, the New Democrats would have to see a major hit to their overall support – currently somewhere in the mid-to-high-twenties – for their seats to be in much jeopardy.

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In other words, barring Wynne-mania or a collapse by one of the other two parties, the Liberals would have to sweep pretty much every riding in which they're competitive in order to reclaim their majority. That probably gives them an even tougher path than Tim Hudak's Tories, who start with fewer seats but also have fewer in which they're out of the game to begin with.

That the Liberal candidates will likely be non-starters in nearly half the province's ridings owes to a retreat into the Greater Toronto Area and a few other urban centres under Ms. Wynne's predecessor Dalton McGuinty. After the Liberals were all but wiped out of rural Ontario last election, Mr. McGuinty more or less embraced that fate, making little attempt at outreach and by some measures disproportionately directing cost-cutting measures toward ridings that had rejected his party. Ms. Wynne has done her best to make up for that, appointing herself Agriculture Minister and spending a lot of time trying to rebuild bridges, but the damage is not easily reversed.

The good news for the Liberals is that after this next election the provincial electoral map will likely change to reflect population shifts to urban and suburban areas, and in the process become one that could be easier for them to paint red. But for now, that map just keeps looking more and more unfavourable.

Adam Radwanski is a columnist covering Ontario politics.

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