Ontario Liberals are bracing for Kathleen Wynne's honeymoon to come to a crashing halt, as the rookie Premier faces her first test with voters since taking office last winter.
After entering this summer's by-election campaigns optimistic of holding on to three or four of the five seats vacated by former Liberal cabinet members, sources with the governing party now concede they're likelier to win only one or two – and it's not outside the realm of possibility they'll get shut out altogether.
Lowering expectations is a time-honoured tradition in advance of by-elections, and with voter turnout anticipated to be poor, it is difficult for any party to accurately predict the results of Thursday's votes. But a series of factors, some within the Liberals' control and others outside it, have cut into the momentum Ms. Wynne was enjoying only a month ago.
Broadly, the Liberals are being weighed down by baggage Ms. Wynne inherited from former premier Dalton McGuinty. A steady stream of negative stories around the ongoing power-plants scandal, including this week's revelation that Mr. McGuinty's staff apparently tried to exert political pressure on the Speaker of the Legislature, has dominated much of the news cycle.
The Liberals also appear to be suffering in several ridings because of their choices of candidates, or those of their opponents.
After failing to lure Windsor Mayor Eddie Francis to carry their banner in Windsor-Tecumseh, long held by former finance minister Dwight Duncan, the Liberals essentially gave up on the riding. They concede that the candidate chosen through an open nomination, Jeewen Gill, is no match for the NDP's Percy Hatfield, a city councillor and former CBC personality.
In the riding of London West, represented until earlier this year by former energy minister Chris Bentley, the Liberals thought they had a star candidate in former teachers' union president Ken Coran. But since Mr. Coran's campaign got off to a bad start, amid controversy about whether he had embellished his biography and how consistently he has lived in London, he has proven more a liability than a help. Polls have shown him running third, and sources with all three parties agree it is likely coming down to a battle between the Progressive Conservative and New Democratic candidates.
The Liberals are happier with their choice of candidate in former education minister Laurel Broten's old seat of Etobicoke-Lakeshore, Toronto city Councillor Peter Milczyn. But they were blindsided by PC Leader Tim Hudak's recruitment of Deputy Mayor Doug Holyday. While the two-way race could still go either way, Mr. Holyday's profile and local popularity – he was mayor of the former municipality of Etobicoke – is thought to give him the edge.
In Ottawa South, the riding that Mr. McGuinty represented, Liberal candidate John Fraser's close relationship with the former premier – for whom he served as constituency assistant – was initially thought to be an asset. But the bad press around the gas plants has seemingly made it a mixed blessing. Both Liberals and Tories are highly skeptical of a poll that showed PC candidate Matt Young with a 14-point edge, but a seat that looked relatively safe is now a toss-up.
Only in Scarborough-Guildwood, where they are fielding CivicAction CEO Mitzie Hunter, are the Liberals confident. But even there, they have been given some concern by the controversial NDP candidacy of former city councillor Adam Giambrone. While Mr. Giambrone has very little chance of winning far from the downtown ward he once represented, his profile – and the surprising amount of effort NDP Leader Andrea Horwath has poured into the riding – could pull away enough Liberal votes to give PC candidate Ken Kirupa a shot.
With get-out-the-vote efforts potentially playing a pivotal role, the Liberals' relatively strong on-the-ground organization could still allow them to pull out several of the ridings. If not, they will point out that by-elections offer voters a consequence-free opportunity to send governments a message, and that their focus on local candidates rather than leaders has not allowed the Premier to capitalize on her personal popularity.
Still, there is already some grousing among Liberals about the recruitment of Mr. Coran to run in London and the handling of the Windsor candidacy. Losing a majority of erstwhile Liberal seats up for grabs would leave Ms. Wynne's campaign team, a largely different crowd from the one Mr. McGuinty favoured, facing some questions.