With two upcoming debates set to rock the Ontario election, the political baggage carried by each of the four main party leaders could soon be at the center of the election campaign.
And the luggage is not lacking to go around.
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The debate on northern issues will take place on Tuesday afternoon, with a second face-off scheduled for May 16.
Here’s a look at how the leaders’ past could affect the campaign, based in part on discussions with party operatives who were granted anonymity to speak openly with CBC News.
Progressive Conservative Leader Doug Ford heads into the June 2 election in a radically different position than in 2018.
He had secured the leadership just eight weeks before the campaign and questions hung over his candidacy. Whether the folksy firebrand of the divisive “Ford Nation” brand had the acumen to be prime minister was an open question for some voters.
Four years and a global pandemic later, “it’s not a wildcard anymore,” says Tamara Small, a political science professor at the University of Guelph.
“He’s got a track record now. Nobody can say, ‘He can’t be prime minister,’ because, well, he was.”
Part of this file is the polarize the ways his government has responded to COVID-19. That could hurt PCs with some voters like health care workers and families with school-aged children or loved ones in long-term care.
There was also the first 18 months or so of Ford’s tenure. His government fought a seemingly constant battle as it cut spending and cut Liberal programs. Polls suggested he was bleeding Ford support.
- You can watch the debate live on CBC starting at 1 p.m. ET on Tuesday.
But there is a well-known maxim that campaigns are not waged on what happened yesterday, but on what will happen tomorrow.
A PC strategist said Ford’s camp was happy with pandemic-related polling and metrics and was happy to let other sides try to argue the past four years.
June 2 will be Andrea Horwath’s fourth election to lead the Ontario NDP. It could be good or bad, depending on who you ask.
Horwath has a strong notoriety. In recent poll conducted by Ipsos for Global News, she was the only leader with a positive net favorability score. Around 32% chose Horwath as their first choice for prime minister, just behind Ford, who got 41%.
The NDP is trying to position her as the only candidate for voters who want Ford out of office. The campaign says it sees a path to power by holding the seats won in 2018 and flipping 10 or 11 constituencies where the party lost 5% or less to PC candidates.
The party won 40 seats in the last elections. The question is whether this was a high point, given that these gains came amid a near total collapse in the Liberal vote.
A party source pointed to a late May 2018 poll that had NDP support at over 40% before falling before election day. That suggests the NDP has room to increase its seat count, the source said.
His fourth election to lead also means that Horwath fought three others without ever landing the top job. While the NDP’s message is that she is an experienced MLA and future premier, the Progressive Conservative and Liberal campaigns are trying to paint a portrait of a leader who will always fail.
“Most voters know she had three cracks and couldn’t deliver on what she ran on,” said Don Guy, owner of Pollara Strategic Insights. Guy led the Ontario Liberal campaigns from 1999 to 2011 and also served as chief of staff to former premier Dalton McGuinty.
“Most leaders get two terms and then it gets pretty tough after that. And she got three.”
Steven Del Duca
Elected leader 10 days before Ontario declared its first COVID-19 state of emergency and without a seat in Queen’s Park, Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca has spent the past two years quietly rebuilding the party after its disastrous 2018 representation. .
His rivals often point out that Del Duca held two cabinet posts in the historically unpopular government of former Prime Minister Kathleen Wynne. The PCs even started a website meant to tie it to Wynne’s legacy and never miss an opportunity to reference the “Liberals of Del Duca-Wynne”.
Small says there is an “information vacuum” around the Liberal leader, and the PC and NDP are trying to fill it.
During his four-year tenure as Minister of Transportation, Del Duca was embroiled in controversy over a proposed new GO station in his riding. The Auditor General of Ontario concluded that Del Duca used his political influence to ensure the station was approved despite a weak business case.
Then in 2019, there was the private pool Del Ducas built too close to a public park without the necessary permits, which he called an honest mistake resulting from miscommunication with a contractor.
But it’s not yet clear whether most voters particularly know or care about either incident. For his part, Del Duca has rebuffed attempts to hand him Wynne’s term as prime minister.
“I think during our tenure we accomplished a lot. I recognize that we weren’t a perfect government,” he said during a campaign stop in Kitchener last week. “Election campaigns are not about looking in the rear view mirror.”
And that’s why his team presents Del Duca as the leader of a “new” liberal party that has undergone a generational upheaval.
The challenge will be convincing potential voters to see him as the best alternative to Ford. Del Duca is little recognized outside of GTA and liberal circles, and the pandemic has only caused him to be further removed from public view.
Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner admits that jumping from a seat in the Legislative Assembly to forming a government is likely an insurmountable task. But he has been particularly focused on growing the party’s support base and fielding candidates who can bolster the Greens’ influence at Queen’s Park.
One of the main challenges is to convince voters that they are offering a vision that is not limited to concerns related to the environment and climate change.
On that front, Schreiner has already rolled out a growing list of affordability-related pledges, including promises to boost housing supply and moderate home prices.
But his environmental bent could serve Schreiner well, says Cristine de Clercy, a professor of political science at Western University. This is partly due to the Ford government’s checkered record on environmental issues.
“I think a lot of new voters between the ages of 18 and 25 might be attracted to the Greens and might run for them,” she said.
The debates could prove key to convincing more Ontarians that the Greens are capable of one day forming government.
“The debates are going to be a very important lever for him to make himself better known across the province and to show voters that he has an idea of where he would lead the province if he were one day elected premier. said de Clercy.