Ontarians have re-elected the Liberals for a fourth consecutive time.
TV networks declared Premier Kathleen Wynne the victor in Thursday’s election at 9:32 p.m., but it remained unclear if the Grits have won another minority government or secured an improbable majority.
Wynne made history, outrunning her opponents and leaving predecessor Dalton McGuinty’s controversial legacy in the dust.
The first woman elected premier of Ontario — and Canada’s only openly gay first minister ever — Wynne bested Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak and NDP Leader Andrea Horwath.
At times, it was a nasty campaign — Wynne is suing Hudak for libel over his statements about her alleged role in the Liberals’ gas-plant scandal and Horwath accused the Grits of being “corrupt” almost every day of the writ period.
While she had promised to stay positive on the hustings, the premier demonized the Conservatives as hell-bent on firing public employees and slashing services and the New Democrats as Tory enablers.
At the same time, Hudak and Horwath constantly reminded voters Wynne was essentially the second coming of McGuinty and deserved to be punished for transgressions during his 2003-13 tenure.
Despite hyperbole about the ex-premier’s costly scrapping of gas-fired power plants in Oakville and Mississauga to win five Liberal seats in the 2011 election, the vote did not turn out to be a referendum on him.
Wynne weathered blistering attacks over McGuinty-era debacles from her rivals in the only televised debate leaders’ debate and insisted she has cleaned up the mess she inherited.
In doing so, her victory likely ends Hudak’s 19-year political career.
The PC leader since 2009, he also took his party to defeat in the last election.
Conservatives in Ottawa and at Queen’s Park have quietly been jockeying for his job for months and federal ministers Tony Clement, Kellie Leitch, Lisa Raitt, and MP Rick Dykstra as well as MPPs Christine Elliott, Vic Fedeli, and Lisa MacLeod as well as party president Richard Ciano are mentioned as possible successors.
The defining issue of the campaign was Hudak’s “Million Jobs Plan,” which was designed to create that many private sector positions over eight years.
His key advisers Tom Long, Ian Robertson, and Clark Savolaine wanted to make a big splash with an eye-catching number so the platform was essentially reverse-engineered from the title with little input from the grassroots.
The Tories claimed there are 1 million unemployed in Ontario — though Statistics Canada says the figure is closer to half that, 550,000 — and hammered home that message for the first weeks of the campaign.
But it was another dramatic number, 100,000, that captured voters’ attention.
That was the number of positions Hudak would eliminate from the 1.2-million-member broader public service within four years in order to balance the budget in 2016-17.
Reasoning that Ontario’s $12.5 billion deficit needs to be paid off as soon as possible, the Tories said the province could not afford to wait until the Liberals’ target of 2017-18.
Wynne pounced on the cuts, repeating every single day in her stump speeches that Hudak planned to “fire 100,000 teachers, firefighters, nurses, and water inspectors and meat inspectors.”
Tory candidates confided the pledge was so “sticky,” they heard about it over and over again at the doorsteps and it was easy fodder for their Liberal and NDP opponents.
“We never explained it well,” complained one PC flag-bearer.
Equally problematic was when several prominent economists revealed that the Tories had miscalculated the number of jobs in the platform.
The campaign brain trust confused “person years of employment” with permanent position created, so each was counted eight times over the eight-year plan.
That inspired the Liberals to have a volunteer dressed up as Count von Count from Sesame Street to gate-crash Tory events carrying signs mocking “Hudak Math.”
But for all Hudak’s problems, Horwath was perhaps the biggest loser in the campaign.
The NDP leader triggered the vote, which Elections Ontario estimates will cost around $90 million, when she said May 2 that her party, which propped up the Liberals in 2012 and 2013, could not support a left-leaning budget.
Wynne caught the New Democrats flat-footed when hours after Horwath’s gambit she asked Lt.-Gov. David Onley to dissolve the legislature, plunging Ontario into an election.
The Liberals had two campaign buses — wrapped at a cost of $100,000 apiece — ready to go and staged a large downtown Toronto pep rally for staffers that night while the NDP stumbled out of the gate.
Even though Horwath first proposed an Ontario pension plan since 2010 — and ran on it in the 2011 election — she inexplicably dropped it from the New Democrats’ policy handbook after the Liberals included a similar scheme in their left-leaning budget.
It was the most visible example of her distancing herself from the party’s past.
In a debilitating midcampaign move, 34 past and present NDP supporters wrote a letter proclaiming that she was “abandoning” progressive principles in a desperate, populist appeal for votes.
At the same time, a flaccid NDP platform, unimaginatively entitled “Andrea Horwath’s Plan That Makes Sense,” failed to capture the voting public’s imagination.
A free concert Sunday night with world-famous performer K’naan and other artists at Toronto’s Berkeley Theatre was a bust, attracting just 100 people when the NDP had hoped it would propel their campaign in the final days.
At dissolution, the Liberals held 48 seats in the 107-member legislature, including the speaker, the Tories had 37, the NDP 21, and there was one vacancy.