Party leaders’ political fate at stake as Ontarians go to the polls

With Ontarians hitting the polls today, the election will not only determine the province's next premier, but also the political fates of all the party leaders.

The month-long election campaign draws to a close as polls open at 9 a.m. ET

With Ontarians hitting the polls today, the election will not only determine the province's next premier, but also the political fates of all the party leaders.

Steven Del Duca, for example, has said that regardless of tonight's election results, he will stay on as Liberal leader. But despite his intentions, it will likely be his party's showing — and his own battle within his riding — that may very well determine whether he remains at the helm.

Meanwhile, NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, who has led the New Democrats through four elections, was vague this week when asked whether she would fight to continue to lead, even if her party again forms Official Opposition.

CBC News spoke to political analysts for their observations on what's at stake for the main party leaders in this election.

Doug Ford

An outright loss for Doug Ford would certainly be a politically devastating — albeit unlikely — result for the Progressive Conservative leader. But the prospect of leading a minority government would also be a significant blow.

"It's an all-or-nothing election for Doug Ford," said Andrew Steele, vice-president at StrategyCorp and a senior campaigner for the federal and Ontario Liberal parties.

"If [Ford was] below the threshold for a majority, it is near-impossible for any of the opposition parties to sustain him. The gulf between the opposition parties and the Conservatives is vast."

But that scenario seems doubtful, as polls indicate a majority victory for the Progressive Conservatives. And for Ford — who many political observers say has gone from a political liability to a political asset — any majority, regardless of how big or small, will likely be seen as a major win.

"There was a point in time when it was [thought] this government won't even last for four years.… It was pretty, pretty depressing within the party," said Jaskaran Sandhu, a political organizer and strategist with State Strategy.

"I think he would take his re-election with a majority as a vindication that the Ontario population likes what he's offering," said Peter Graefe, an associate professor of political science for McMaster University in Hamilton.

Ford has emerged from low polling numbers to establish a coalition of support that isn't just liberal PC swing voters and traditional conservatives — but now also includes endorsements from labour unions, said Ginny Roth, a former Ontario PC strategist who now works in government relations for Crestview Strategy.

"I think the world is going to be his political oyster to a certain extent," she said. If he wins, he will have "a lot of political capital to spend."

"He's going to be in a pretty strong political position, I think, when the votes roll in on Thursday night," she said.

As for the size of any majority, Roth said she doesn't believe it will really make much of a difference; even if the party loses some seats, a majority is the clear dividing line.

"I think, in practical terms, when the legislature comes back and they go about legislating with a fresh new mandate, the number of total seats of a majority I don't think matters all that much," she said.

Andrea Horwath

With Horwath herself being cagey about her political future post-election, it does seem that unless the NDP leader is the next provincial premier, her political fate may be sealed.

"Even if she strengthens the NDP position as Official Opposition, the [feeling of the] membership of that party will be likely, 'Well, she had a shot to move from that position to premier and she didn't get there,'" Graefe said. "'Do we have another ace in the hole? Is there someone else that will maybe connect better with the Ontario population?'"

But Roth said Horwath could make a case for staying on if the party significantly increases its seat count.

"I don't think that's likely to happen, and … I think she probably knows that," she said. "I think she's probably prepared that on election night, she'll just make it easy on everyone and pass the baton on to someone else."

Steven Del Duca

While he's not expected to become the next premier of Ontario, Del Duca could rack up a series of other smaller political victories to proclaim that the evening was a success of sorts.

But key for the Liberal leader is winning his own riding of Vaughan–Woodbridge, where polls suggest he's in a tight race.

"I think it's a victory for him if he wins his own seat," Roth said.

Yet a loss could also be politically fatal.

"If he loses his [riding], unless [the Liberals] have done spectacularly well, he's gone, I think," said Graefe.

Also of great political importance for Del Duca is regaining official party status for the Liberals, who were reduced to just seven seats after the 2018 election and would need to gain five seats in tonight's race.

That in and of itself would be enough for Del Duca to stay on as leader, said Steele.

"I think as long as he's got party status, he's got enough to say credibly, 'I've gotten us from a heap of muck to we're doing OK,'" he said.

"The NDP was getting multiple millions of dollars a year as a recognized political party that the Liberals didn't have. The resource gulf was humongous this time. If that's eliminated, that's a big win."

Roth said that winning back official party status is the "absolute lowest bar he's going to want to cross."

While she believes that's doable, the big, open question for her is whether Del Duca can win his own seat and whether the Liberals can form Official Opposition.

"If he does both those things, he has a very strong case to make to those party members that he should be given a second chance," she said.

"If he can't do either of those things — if he doesn't win more seats than the NDP, and if he can't win his own seat — I think that's a pretty tough case to make to party members to take a second chance."

Sandhu said he sees a few potential scenarios for the political future of Del Duca.

"If Del Duca finishes third, he's out. If Del Duca finishes a tight second to the NDP … and he loses his main seat, I think he's out."

But if he takes over the Official Opposition, then he will remain party leader, he said.

Sandhu said one of the challenges in replacing Del Duca is that it may be difficult to find someone to challenge him.

"Del Duca will still out-fundraise the majority of the folks within the party. He probably has a better ground game than the majority folks in the party across the province," he said. "So unless an outsider comes in and tries to take the Ontario leadership … what's the alternative?"

Michael Schreiner

A major victory for the Green Party would be to rack up another seat at Queen's Park.

Still, observers agree that for Michael Schreiner, the first-ever Green Party member to be elected to the Ontario Legislature, retaining his seat is a big win.

"I think it's a very good case to make to say that his next challenge in any election is going to be to show Ontarians that the Green Party is more than just him," said Roth.

"The fact that he's had some success, I think, gives him a strong case to stay and try to nurture the party, develop some of the issues."

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