Skip to main content

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne speaks at a Healthy Kids Community Challenge event in Toronto on Jan. 24, 2014.FRANK GUNN/The Canadian Press

Kathleen Wynne just can't seem to let Niagara Falls go.

Even many of Ms. Wynne's fellow Liberals believe their party is out of luck in the Southern Ontario by-election next Thursday. By most accounts from the ground, NDP candidate Wayne Gates and Progressive Conservative Bart Maves are battling it out while the Liberals' Joyce Morocco is running third.

Still, Ms. Wynne was back in that corner of her province yet again this week, turning up in the hard-hit town of Fort Erie at an announcement about new aerospace-industry jobs, then delivering a pep talk at Ms. Morocco's campaign office. This followed a slew of other announcements and appearances by the Premier, a parade of ministers, and the continued shuttling of Liberal staffers obliged to spend their time off pounding the pavement.

Perhaps Ms. Wynne knows something others don't. If not, and if Niagara Falls continues to be flooded with Liberals through this weekend and on election day, she and the team around her could be setting themselves up for second-guessing.

That's because, by directing so much attention toward a riding they probably won't win, the Liberals could hurt their chances in one where they have a better shot.

Thornhill, to be contested the same day, seems a toss-up between the Liberals' Sandra Yeung Racco and the Tories' Gila Martow. For the Liberals, winning that riding would counterbalance losing the Niagara Falls one they previously held. It would also put PC Leader Tim Hudak in an awkward position, since Thornhill is one of the very few seats his party held in the battleground Greater Toronto Area, until it was vacated by Peter Shurman shortly after a public spat with Mr. Hudak about an expenses controversy.

By throwing all available resources at Thornhill, the Liberals could up the pressure on Mr. Hudak, who has already taken enough grief from his own party that he can ill afford another round of bad news. With the NDP having effectively ignored Thornhill altogether to focus on Niagara Falls, Mr. Hudak's party would be the only one battling on two fronts at once, which could leave it spread too thin to win either.

There are various explanations for why the Liberals haven't yet gone that route. One is that they have enough resources to not have to pick one riding. Another is that, by keeping active in both, they can better test-run the ground game they will need in a general election likely to happen shortly thereafter. A third is that Niagara has more of its own media market and thus visits by Ms. Wynne and her ministers get more attention. There are also accounts of Ms. Wynne having a noble aversion to giving up on ridings.

If the Liberals narrowly lose Thornhill, though – leaving them either the only party shut out or witnesses to a PC sweep – they'll have some cause to worry about a pattern. During a round of by-elections last summer they stuck it out in a London riding in which they finished a distant third, and were left to wonder if redirecting volunteers from there would have allowed them to win an Etobicoke seat they lost much more narrowly.

As overhyped as by-elections can be, such calculations will be writ large when the general election rolls around. Realistically, the Liberals are out of play through much of rural and small-town Ontario, with as many as 50 of the province's 107 seats write-offs for them unless there's a major upsurge in their support. So if they hope to hang on to government, their best option is probably to run skeletal campaigns in those places, while throwing everything they have at the (predominantly Toronto-area) ridings available to them.

The flipside is that if the Liberals scarcely campaign in places they probably won't win this time, the effects – notably a lack of organization and lists of supporters – will make it harder to compete there subsequently.

For the good of their party's future, Liberals should probably be pleased Ms. Wynne seems to lean toward the latter. But if they get shut out next week, she will find herself under mounting pressure to worry more about the here and now.

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