The Liberal bus alone heads east

Of all the seats the Progressive Conservatives picked up in their 2018 majority win, their victory in Ottawa West-Nepean was the most narrow — a mere 175 votes.

But even though the Liberals came in a distant third in that race, it’s where Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca is heading Saturday morning, the first of the party leaders to go to eastern Ontario.

The eastern region isn’t expected to be a much of a battleground. It’s generally tended toward Tory blue in rural areas and some suburban ridings, and Liberal red in more urban ridings.

The NDP has not been much of a force in the east, with the exception of Ottawa Centre (although it went 23 years without representation until 2018). Even NDP Leader Andrea Horwath joked during her only Ottawa campaign stop in the last election that Oshawa was the party’s “eastern toehold.”

But the last election saw a bit of shakeup. As former Liberal leader Kathleen Wynne’s approval tanked, and Horwath gained momentum, many progressive-minded voters shifted their support from the Liberals to the NDP, in a bid to keep the PCs from forming a majority government.

It’s was this shift in voting that saw the NDP sweep urban seats in Toronto, at the expense of the Liberals. And it led to the Liberal Party losing a number of seats in eastern Ontario — all seats it’s hoping to win back.

Progressive primaries

At this point in the campaign, the Liberals have a slight lead over the NDP and both parties are vying to be the main alternative to the PCs, who are polling well ahead at this point.

“What we have seen in recent elections is that the first weeks have had what we could call the progressive primary, where the Liberals and the NDP have fought it out over which party will take on the Conservatives,” said Peter Graefe, associate professor of political science at McMaster University.

“So I think an important part of the next week [to]10 days is a shaking out of which of those two parties becomes a rallying point.”

And it’s Del Duca who’s making the first play to become the progressive choice in the east.

Ontario Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca, seen here in this photo taken in April, 2022, is the first leader to make campaign stops in eastern Ontario. (Christopher Katsarov/The Canadian Press)

Here’s the lowdown on three ridings to watch in eastern Ontario.

Ottawa West-Nepean: Two former cabinet ministers and local mayors held this riding for the Liberals for 15 years. But when the Liberal support tanked in 2018 and shifted to the NDP, it actually allowed the PC candidate, Jeremy Roberts, to win by the narrowest of margins. 

Now, with the vitriol shown against Wynne in 2018 no longer a factor, the Liberals are looking for a comeback. They’ve tapped Sam Bhalesar — a woman who’s the national party secretary, as their candidate.

The NDP’s Chandra Pasma, who came closer than any New Democrat in the history of the riding to winning in 2018, is on the ballot again this time around. 

Along with Roberts, who’s running for re-election, Steven Warren is running for the Greens, and Scott Blandford is registered for the New Blue Party. 

Ottawa Centre: Ever since the province’s only NDP government lost in 1995, this politically active riding — always among the country’s and province’s largest voter turnouts — has elected a Liberal MPP. In 2018, newcomer Joel Harden won the riding for the NDP on a progressive orange wave by a whopping 8,000-plus votes. 

With the fight in this riding usually between the NDP and the Liberals, the one with momentum in the last week of the election could make the difference here. Note that Del Duca is not visiting this riding, at least not at this campaign stop.

The Liberals have Katie Gibbs running for them, while Scott Healey is the Progressive Conservative candidate and Shelby Bertrand is running for the Greens.

Also registered are Glen Armstrong for the New Blue Party, Marc Adornato for the None of the Above Direct Democracy Party and Independent candidate Raymond Samuels.

Kingston and the Islands: This Liberal stalwart riding has seen some NDP action in the early 1990s and then again in 2018 when Ian Arthur beat the Liberal incumbent by more than 6,000 votes.

But with Arthur not standing for re-election, the riding is wide open.

The Liberal bus will be making a stop here Saturday afternoon on its way back from Ottawa to the GTA, presumably to bolster the campaign of Liberal candidate Ted Hsu, a former one-term MP for the riding. 

Hsu is up against some well-known candidates. The new NDP candidate is Mary Rita Holland, a local city councillor. And the PC candidate is Gary Bennett, a former mayor of Kingston who also ran for the Progressive Conservatives in 2018, when he came a close third behind the NDP.

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