Glen Murray continued the Ontario Liberal winning streak last night, rolling to victory in Toronto Centre. Just as in St. Paul's, the Liberal vote held almost exactly at 2007 levels, with Murray holding on to the broad Liberal base across the riding. The NDP had high hopes with Cathy Crowe, but ultimately fell short, although the 33% of the vote pulled by her represents the best showing by the party in that riding since they nearly won St. George-St. David in 1990.
While the Liberals and NDP both went to sleep feeling fairly good for different reasons, the PC's and Green Party both had rough nights. Pamela Taylor finished a distant third, with the PC vote dropping to 15%, and the Green Party vote, which in recent elections had made Toronto Centre one of the better ridings in the country for them, collapsed, going from 10% in 2007 to 3%, with Stefan Premdas finishing with under 1,000 votes.
Although no one was thinking they would win the riding, the 3rd place finish for the PC's has to be demoralizing going into the next round of by-elections, particularly in the leans Liberal but still swing riding of Ottawa West-Nepean. Taylor's campaign was always going to be an awkward one after trying to promote Mike Harris 2.0 in 2010 after declaring that the PC Party she ran under in 2007 "had nothing to do with Mike Harris", and from what I have heard, her status as a very Red Tory didn't do her any favours, both amongst the general population of the riding, and amongst Progressive Conservatives. A friend of mine who was recently elected to the OPCYA executive told me how after the AGM, which was held in Toronto, the staffers tried to take advantage of an influx of PC youth being in the city to go campaign for Taylor, with little to no success, as the Hudakite Youth wanted little to do with the socially liberal Taylor, denying her the same sort of out of riding volunteer support that the Liberal and NDP campaigns had. And while one would think a Red Tory might be more successful in a riding like Toronto Centre, the lack of independence Taylor was given to campaign also hurt (her website contained no local issues, just a news feed from the PC website). The only time the Taylor campaign picked up any press, it was for her outing of John Baird, whose sexual orientation has long been an open secret in political circles, and was hardly a momentum builder.
The other, perhaps more tangible issue one can see from the failure of the PC campaign is a repeat finding from the St. Paul's by-election, that attempting to turn by-elections into referendums on the HST seems to be a losing strategy. Indeed, a non-partisan consensus seems to be building around the by-election results that the HST just wasn't much of a factor in the vote, with the big issues being the battle of personalities between Glen Murray and Cathy Crowe, with Taylor getting almost totally squeezed out of the picture. When I was out door knocking for Glen, I maybe had a couple voters who expressed anything about the HST at all. The mantra that all politics is local seems to perfectly fit this by-election.
Moving back to the idea that Taylor's status as a Red Tory hurt her campaign thanks to internal divisions within the PC Party, this is something that could come back to hurt the PC's in the next round of by-elections. After losing badly in St. Paul's and Toronto Centre running against the HST, and little else in the way of tactics, some grumbling must be building in PC ranks over if Hudak, who has campaigned against the HST since his election as leader across the province and made it a central part of the PC messaging, cannot deliver the goods electorally. In terms of candidate selection, it will be interesting to see how OW-N goes, with 2007 candidate Mike Patton, who has a Red Tory past, going up against former assistant to Lisa MacLeod, Beth Graham, and who seems to tack more to the right. If Patton, former communications director for Larry O'Brien wins the nomination, could he have the same trouble motivating a grumpy and right-wing PC base that Pam Taylor had?
And in Leeds-Grenville, a crowded Tory race could get interesting, with the powers that be seemingly lining up behind Steve Clark, a former mayor of Brockville and EA to Runciman, who seems to be the establishment candidate in a field that includes current Brockville mayor David Henderson and perhaps most interestingly,
Shawn Carmichael, vice-president of the Leeds and Grenville Landowners Association and a close ally of Randy Hillier, who has endorsed him for the nomination. With the PC party having had two socially liberal by-election candidates in a row under Hudak (Sue Ann Levy and Pam Taylor), another one possibly in Mike Patton, some PC's on the right/Randy Hillier flank of the party could rebel against another "establishment" candidate, a theory put forward by Andrew Steele (http://www.theglobeandmail.com/blogs/andrew-steele/runcimans-exit-exposes-hudaks-right-flank/article1449243/)
It is worth noting that in a 1982 by-election, former newspaper editor Neil Reynolds ran as a Libertarian candidate and finished 3rd, getting 13.4% of vote. If Carmichael, the Landowners candidate, is forced out by the party or loses the nomination, could he run as an independent? Or failing that, will the weight of the Landowners force Clark into taking some further-right positions? If it is the latter, the Liberals could jump on this by framing it as part of a Hudak "secret agenda", and use it to campaign in Ottawa West-Nepean. If the PC's don't win Ottawa West-Nepean, a riding they need to win if they wish to form government, murmurs of discontent could definitely start to surface more.