Ontario PCs take seat from Liberals in by-election

Councillor Raymond Cho Wins Scarborough-Rouge River By-Election

On September 1st, Ontario Progressive Conservative candidate (and Ward 42 Councillor) Raymond Cho was elected as the new MPP for Scarborough-Rouge River.  He replaced long-serving Liberal MPP Bas Balkissoon who suddenly resigned in March 2016.

This is a key win for the Ontario PCs as it will give them some confidence that they can compete with the Liberals in urban ridings in the 2018 general election – especially if they continue to attract popular candidates.  It also builds the credibility of new leader Patrick Brown, who has now won three consecutive by-elections at the helm of the party.

The results of the by-election were consistent with provincial polling averages putting Ontario PC popular support at 41% and Liberal support at 29.8% – the results were 38.1% and 28.9%.*  The Liberals will be slightly concerned by the decline of their vote share in a Toronto riding from 38.7% in the 2014 general election to 28.9%.  The most recent weighted polling average had Liberal support in Toronto at 37.1%.*

The NDP were unable to capitalize on this by-election despite a well-known candidate, Andrea Horwath’s personal popularity and success in by-elections before the last general one.  They will look to refocus their efforts and refine their messages ahead of the next by-elections in Ottawa-Vanier and Niagara West-Glanbrook.

Important Win for the Ontario PCs but Several Caveats…

Despite the important win for the Ontario PCs in a Toronto riding, it is important to consider the following:

  • The Ontario Liberals entered into this by-election campaign with low approval ratings and the Ontario PCs have been polling at over 40% support in the province.*
  • Support for former Liberal MPP Bas Balkissoon had continuously declined over the past several elections (65% in 2007; 42% in 2011; 39 in 2014). Also, it is not clear that MPP Balkissoon was performing any high profile campaigning on behalf of the Liberals.
  • Raymond Cho had been a city councillor in Scarborough since 1991, and had the significant advantage of name recognition among voters. Cho’s campaign was further aided by campaign co-chair Doug Ford, who remains popular in Scarborough.
  • Traditional Ontario political thinking is that by-elections are often used as ‘protest votes’ for the electorate to voice their displeasure with specific government policies, or even government direction.

It would be premature to identify Raymond Cho’s election as a real shift in the electorate –or if it will just be reversed in the general election like the 2014 election of Doug Holyday, another city councillor-turned PC MPP.

Nevertheless, both parties will analyze the results as an early test as they begin campaign preparations in earnest over the next 6 months.  Furthermore, a by-election in a riding that will be split in two after boundary adjustments (in the next election) will only be a fraction of the equation that parties use to determine their course.

Historically, the PCs have fared well in Toronto when the Liberals and NDP split the vote, which seems to have happened in this by-election.  The Liberals may want to re-examine their strategy to ensure that they can consolidate the left-of-centre voters who carried them in the last general election.  These voters may be dissatisfied on issues such as hydro-one, electricity rates, and other pocketbook issues.

Notably, Premier Wynne was on a trade mission to Mexico on the date of the by-election, unlike other by-elections where the Premier was present to support the Liberal candidate.  She did not have any high profile visits to the riding, such as her event with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the Whitby-Oshawa by-election earlier this year.

Sex Education ‘Gaffe’ did not Affect Brown – as yet

Brown and Cho won despite a challenging week stemming from Brown’s attempted clarification and then reversal on his position regarding the sexual health education curriculum in schools.  The PCs were able to win despite the media’s focus on the perceived gaffe and the Liberals attempt to capitalize.  Opposition to sex education is a popular issue in some urban ridings with a strong visible minority presence like Scarborough Rouge River, and the PCs may have benefitted from the publicity.  Brown may face repercussions from those comments in the next general election if the Liberals continue to paint him as a social conservative.

MPP Cho likely to become Ontario PCs Toronto Front Man

It is not expected that the election of Raymond Cho will have a significant impact on the legislature.  It does not affect the Liberal majority or the composition of key committees.

Cho has “flown under the radar” at City Hall for over 20 years.  His strength has always been as a “retail politician” and is very popular in the riding.  Nevertheless, as the only Toronto MPP, the Ontario PCs will likely use Raymond as the front man for key urban-focused policies that should begin to be released in the policy development process over the next several months and at the next Annual General Meeting in early 2017.

*Provincial polling averages used from http://www.threehundreight.com