Ontario's opposition parties have won two key by-elections, dealing a one-two punch to Premier Kathleen Wynne's Liberals as her minority government searches for the legislative support needed to pass a budget and avoid a spring election.
See Elections Ontario's full results here.
The Progressive Conservatives held on to Thornhill, a suburban constituency north of Toronto, where optometrist Gila Martow bested Liberal city councillor Sandra Yeung Racco, 48 per cent of the vote to 41.5. New Democrat Cindy Hackelberg finished a distant third at 6.8 per cent.
That result is certain to be a relief to Tory Leader Tim Hudak, who has struggled to persuade his own party that he can win.
But the PCs' elation was tempered by a New Democrat victory in Niagara Falls, previously held by the Liberals. Union leader Wayne Gates delivered the riding for Andrea Horwath with 39 per cent of the vote to 37 per cent for Tory Bart Maves and 19 per cent for Liberal Joyce Morocco.
Mr. Hudak had already faced divisions in his party over his controversial anti-union proposals, with some Tories arguing the policies were hurting their brand in blue-collar ridings. The result in working-class Niagara Falls is certain to further stoke that fire of internal dissent.
With the Liberals holding only a minority of seats in the legislature, Ms. Wynne must secure the support of at least one other party to pass a budget this spring and avoid a snap election. The Tories are already angling to bring down the government, and the NDP's victory is certain to convince many in the party that the time is right to team up with the PCs and force an early vote.
Ms. Wynne, who campaigned personally in both ridings, must face that possible election amid signs that, despite her personal popularity, voters are still bent on punishing the Liberals for a string of spending scandals and a sluggish economy.
"This is a hard night – we're not going to pretend that it's not," the chastened Premier told a convention centre hall in Thornhill, surrounded by cheering supporters and much of her cabinet. "So we're going to have a hard night and tomorrow morning we're going to get up and we're going to start the fight for the next one."
Trying to put a brave face on the defeats, Ms. Wynne took an aggressive stance as she rallied her party: "Whatever has happened in these by-elections tonight is not reflective of what's going to happen in the general election...We've lost these skirmishes but we're ready for the next battle."
Nearby, top Tory brass gathered with hundreds of Ms. Martow's supporters in an industrial park banquet hall, where the crowd grew increasingly excited during the night as their candidate held her lead.
When Mr. Hudak arrived to congratulate her, he held up the victory as proof his party is headed for government in the next election.
"Tonight, folks, we saw proof that the people of Ontario want to see change, and they sent the...Liberals a very clear message, that they want leadership that's going to take decisive action and implement a plan that's going to balance the budget, create jobs and get Ontario moving again," Mr. Hudak told the crowd.
An emboldened Ms. Horwath, meanwhile, joined Mr. Gates's victory party at a hotel overlooking Niagara Falls.
The by-elections offered a glimpse at the parties' strategies for the general election, which could come as soon as May.
The Liberals structured their effort around Ms. Wynne, with a steady stream of public appearances and policy announcements designed to earn maximum publicity. The party, however, faced a tough slog. The cancellation of two gas-fired power plants under her predecessor, at a cost of $1-billion, has dogged the party for the last two years. And the province's economic problems, which are particularly acute in rust-belt Niagara, haven't helped matters.
The party also spread its resources, fighting hard in Niagara Falls even as it became apparent their chances of victory there were slim.
The Tories, meanwhile, ran targeted campaigns that turned negative. In Thornhill, for instance, Ms. Martow accused Ms. Yeung Racco of using her post as a councillor to send out free mailings. And in Niagara Falls, the PCs tried to motivate right-leaning voters with a publicity campaign that portrayed Mr. Gates as a "radical" who would deliver the legislature to the unions.
Mr. Hudak, however, spent much the campaign dealing with internal leaks that showed his own party's reluctance to embrace his proposal to bring right-to-work laws, which would ban mandatory union dues, to Ontario.
And former Thornhill MPP Peter Shurman, who resigned in December after Mr. Hudak chastised him for some of his expense claims, openly criticized his former boss.
"Hudak has taken [the Tory party] to places it shouldn't have been. Centre right is needed. No party near it," he said in a Twitter exchange two days before the vote.
Ms. Horwath's party, for its part, put all its resources into Niagara, dispatching armies of volunteers, most of the caucus and the leader herself to get out the vote. The plan paid off as it has several times over the last two years. The NDP currently has four more seats than it won in the 2011 election.
The Niagara Falls riding became vacant when Liberal MPP Kim Craitor resigned in September.
The Liberals now hold 49 seats in the legislature to 37 for the Tories and 21 for the NDP.