Barring a miracle, Premier Kathleen Wynne and the Ontario Liberals are facing the real threat of being trounced in the next provincial election in 2018.
Indeed, the Progressive Conservatives under new leader Patrick Brown may easily wind up forming a majority government.
That grim reality came into sharp focus for Wynne and the ruling Liberals after a resounding defeat on Thursday in a byelection in the Whitby-Oshawa riding.
In a result much worse for the Liberals than polls predicted, Conservative candidate Lorne Coe captured 52.9 per cent of the votes, a gain of 12 percentage points for the Tories from the 2014 election when popular Tory MPP Christine Elliott was re-elected. Elliott resigned her seat last August after losing the party leadership race to Brown.
The Liberals won 28 per cent, down four points from the 2014 election. The NDP got 16 per cent, off seven percentage points.
For Wynne, the result is an embarrassing rejection of her government’s record and her own campaign tactics.
Despite advice that the provincial riding was unwinnable because it had been a Tory stronghold for more than 20 years, Wynne forged ahead as if she could capture the riding by sheer willpower.
She flooded the riding with cabinet ministers, MPPs and staffers, spent lots of money on TV and radio ads and in a move that she foolishly believed would put them over the top or at least keep the vote close, she got Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to attend a much-hyped Liberal rally.
None of it worked.
Now Wynne must re-examine her own performance as well as that of her government.
That’s because although the election is two years away, top Liberals and Tory strategists are already starting to plot their campaign approaches.
For Wynne, that strategy so far consists of pushing forward aggressively on her plans to expand infrastructure projects, especially transit, as well as moving ahead on the new Ontario Retirement Pension Plan and a cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions.
Wynne is also expected to unveil a major cabinet shuffle this summer in a bid to create an impression of “a fresh start” to her government.
Even with these moves, though, the odds of victory appear slim for several reasons.
First, the Liberals will have been in power for 15 years by the next election and the sense among voters that it’s “time for change” will be powerful.
Second, Wynne has angered many voters, including Liberal loyalists, with a series of controversial moves, from selling off part of Hydro One to overseeing cuts in health care and the ongoing scandals from gas plants to e-health overspending.
Third, Brown is a more formidable opponent than Wynne ever expected. Since becoming Tory leader last May, Brown has shown himself to be politically smart, a trait his predecessor Tim Hudak lacked. He has carefully downplayed his hard-line social conservatism and has offered little in the way of policy that would upset many potential supporters.
Brown has also set a torrid pace in meeting with ethnic and special interest groups around the province.
In the past week alone, he hosted an Italian Night at Queen’s Park and met with representatives from seniors groups, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, the Toronto Elementary Catholic Teachers union, Ontario fruit and vegetable growers, Chinese-Canadians, Tamils, the Greek Orthodox Church, Buddhists, Vietnamese-Canadians and more.
Still, the Wynne team believes there’s hope. The latest province-wide poll shows the Tories with 34 per cent support and the Liberals close behind with 31 per cent.
To win, though, Wynne needs to remain scandal-free, have the Ontario economy rebound and get shovels in the ground on transit projects so voters can see work actually being done.
At the same time, she needs Brown to screw up badly, such as being caught perhaps promising one thing privately to a special-interest group and saying something totally opposite in public.
Without such breaks it will be a difficult road ahead for Wynne — and even harder if she fails to learn any lessons from the byelection defeat.