It was a bad night for Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne's Liberals, but it could have been much worse: it could have been a good night for Tim Hudak.
By any measure, the Ontario Liberals were the big losers of Thursday's five byelections. The governing party lost three of the five seats up for grabs, and their average support in the five ridings compared to the 2011 provincial election plummeted by some 18 points. A toe-hold was opened for the Progressive Conservatives in Toronto with Doug Holyday's victory in Etobicoke-Lakeshore, and the Liberals were further whittled away in southwestern Ontario by losing Windsor-Tecumseh and London West to the New Democrats.
But the lacklustre performance by the Liberals was still better than expected. Polls suggested the party would be lucky to win more than one riding and might lose as many as three to Hudak's Tories, including former premier Dalton McGuinty's seat. That would have been insult added to injury for Wynne.
Instead, the Progressive Conservatives under-performed expectations across the board and had their only bit of good news with Holyday's win. That does give Hudak something to brag about -- they took a seat away from the government and added a high profile individual like Holyday to their caucus. But it is difficult to see the win in Etobicoke-Lakeshore as anything but Holyday's, particularly in the context of how the Tories performed in the rest of the byelections. Compared to the 2011 provincial election, the Tories only improved their support in the five ridings by an average of about five points.
The party was never considered to be in the running in Windsor-Tecumseh and Scarborough-Guildwood was a long shot, but the polls suggested the PCs could wrestle London West and Ottawa South away from the Liberals. The race in McGuinty's old riding looked increasingly in the bag for the Progressive Conservatives, as final polls gave Matt Young a seven to 16 point lead over the Liberals' John Fraser. Though the end result was quite close, Fraser nevertheless held the riding.
London West turned out to be the biggest surprise of the night. The NDP's Peggy Sattler won handily with a wide margin over the Tories' Ali Chahbar. It had appeared to be Chahbar's race to lose, but instead the New Democrats pulled out another unexpectedly big win in southwestern Ontario, following their victory in the Kitchener-Waterloo byelection last year. The landslide victory by Percy Hatfield in Windsor-Tecumseh, impressive as it is, was expected -- and the area votes NDP at the federal level. Both NDP victories occurred where the Liberals lost the most votes.
It made for a good night for Andrea Horwath and the New Democrats. Their candidate in Scarborough-Guildwood, Adam Giambrone, put up strong numbers in a third-place finish and the party increased support across the five ridings by an average of about 10 points. It will make it hard for the NDP leader to resist turning the screws further on the government.
But despite their losses in three of five contests, the Liberals come out of the night feeling better than the Progressive Conservatives. Expectations had been low for the Liberals and high for the PCs. While it would be too much to say that Tim Hudak's leadership is now under threat, it has never been particularly solid since 2011's defeat and this will not help matters. The Liberals have little to be proud of in the results but, if it had been even rougher, Wynne -- instead of Hudak -- would be feeling the heat on Friday morning.
Éric Grenier taps The Pulse of federal and regional politics for Huffington Post Canada readers on most Tuesdays and Fridays. Grenier is the author of ThreeHundredEight.com, covering Canadian politics, polls and electoral projections.
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