WHITBY, Ont. — A provincial byelection east of Toronto should, on the face of it, be the Progressive Conservatives' to lose, but several factors are making for a tougher fight — and a more interesting race.
Byelections can often be unfriendly toward the governing party, and not only are two criminal cases before the courts over alleged Liberal activities, but the Liberals' partial sell-off of Hydro One to pay for infrastructure has proven widely unpopular.
As well, Whitby-Oshawa is a longtime Tory riding and candidate Lorne Coe — a regional councillor already known in the community — has the support of the popular previous MPP, Christine Elliott.
Thursday's byelection was triggered when Elliott resigned the seat in the summer, ending a mini-family dynasty. Her husband, the late Jim Flaherty, represented the area provincially from 1995 to 2006, when he jumped to federal politics, and Elliott took up the banner, holding the seat until she stepped down.
Justin Trudeau attends a campaign rally with Elizabeth Roy and Kathleen Wynne, on Feb. 9, 2016. (Photo: Fred Thornhill/CP
That's where the Liberals see an opportunity.
It's the first time in decades the Liberals "have a real shot" at wining Whitby-Oshawa, said Liberal candidate Elizabeth Roy.
"Some would say it was or is a Conservative riding, but others argue it was a Jim and Christine riding," she said.
Since Elliott's resignation came after losing the Progressive Conservative leadership race to Patrick Brown, it is splitting some PC allegiances in Whitby-Oshawa.
"We're hearing a lot at the doors about Christine Elliott," Roy said. "Community members are upset she wasn't chosen as leader of the party."
"There is no question that Christine Elliott and Jim Flaherty were very personally popular..."
NDP candidate Niki Lundquist is hearing the same things from voters.
"There is no question that Christine Elliott and Jim Flaherty were very personally popular and I think that actually helped in terms of Conservative support," she said.
"People are unsure of Patrick Brown. They don't know a lot about him. They don't know what he is and they also feel genuinely that Christine Elliott would have been a better leader, so I think there are many Conservative supporters who are not clear on what they should be doing in this election."
But even with the popular Elliott's support — she nominated Coe for the party's candidate — she has not been a public presence on the campaign trail since she was appointed by the Liberals in December as the province's patient ombudsman, a politically neutral position.
Coe still tends to mention her within the first five seconds of knocking on someone's door.
"Christine did come to the nomination meeting and spoke about ... the values that I would bring as a Progressive, and I underscore progressive, Conservative and my abilities to continue the legacy that her late husband and she brought to this riding for 20 years," he said.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attends a campaign rally with Elizabeth Roy, on Feb. 9, 2016. (Photo: Fred Thornhill/CP)
In a sign of just how much the Liberals are hoping Elliott's resignation left a hole they can fill, they had Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his "sunny ways" refrain sweep into town Tuesday night for a rally.
He reminded Liberals packed into a Whitby restaurant that "Ontario now has an ambitious and dedicated partner in Ottawa."
It may help Roy's pitch to voters that not only would she be their voice in government — as opposed to voting as an opposition MPP — but that her party has a powerful friend in Ottawa.
All three of the major candidates nearly agree on what issues are top of mind for Whitby-Oshawa residents: jobs, health care, infrastructure and transit, as many of them commute to Toronto for work. Rising hydro rates are also a concern, highlighted by a group of protesters outside Tuesday's Trudeau rally.