Within a year of the 2011 provincial election, the Ontario Liberals could regain their majority government and deal Tim Hudak's Progressive Conservatives a crippling blow.
The resignation of Kitchener-Waterloo PC MPP Elizabeth Witmer gives Dalton McGuinty the opportunity to eke out the slimmest of majorities. If the Liberals can win the seat, it would put them and the PC and NDP opposition at 53 seats apiece, a tie broken by Liberal Speaker Dave Levac.
Witmer, 65, had held the riding (and its predecessor) since 1990. Her resignation comes after accepting the Liberal appointment to the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board, a position that comes with a pay increase and increased responsibility.
A former cabinet minister, Witmer was seen as a "heavyweight" within the PC caucus who hailed from the more moderate wing of the party. When Witmer came up short for the party leadership in 2002, she supported Ernie Eves (who, more recently, criticized Tim Hudak's leadership). She gave her support to John Tory in 2004, rather than the more conservative Jim Flaherty, while she stood behind Christine Elliott in 2009 - and not Tim Hudak.
Though she says her decision to accept the Liberal appointment has nothing to do with Hudak's leadership, she is known to have been at odds with caucus on a number of issues. Regardless of whether her departure is a direct test of Tim Hudak's stewardship, the by-election she has caused certainly will be.
Kitchener-Waterloo has voted for Elizabeth Witmer for so long that it is difficult to determine whether the riding is a Tory seat or a Witmer seat. Her vote has been stable over the last three elections at between 41 and 43 per cent, with the Liberals taking 36 per cent last year.
At the federal level, the riding has been one of the closest in the country over the last two elections. The Conservatives won it by a mere 17 votes in 2008, while 2,144 votes separated Conservative Peter Braid from Liberal (and former MP) Andrew Telegdi. Such a close race during the last election, one in which the federal Liberals posted their worst result ever, seems to indicate that the Liberal brand is still relatively strong in the riding.
This means the riding is probably up for grabs, and if the Liberals can find a good candidate they will be able to push the idea of electing a cabinet minister in a majority government. Compared to the idea of electing another opposition MPP, that might be a strong argument.
But what of the NDP? Though they took less than 20 per cent of the vote in the riding in the last two elections, they could play the spoiler. The New Democrats are up in the polls and could steal a good deal of votes away from the McGuinty Liberals. They will certainly try, as every party has a lot riding on the results.
For the Liberals, a majority is at stake. Though it would be precarious (a death or sudden resignation would plunge the party back into minority territory), it could potentially keep the party in power until the 2015 election. For the New Democrats, their bargaining position in a minority legislature could be lost. Though the NSP will be gunning for a victory of their own to cement recent momentum, a PC victory would serve them just as well. And Tim Hudak desperately needs one. His leadership is already on the rocks, and if he presides over the return of a Liberal majority government he may not survive.
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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