TORONTO — Ontario's New Democrats are heading into the upcoming election in their strongest position in decades, and are now setting out to accomplish what they couldn't last time – getting voters to see them as the government in waiting.
On paper, the deck is stacked in their favour – they are the official Opposition, they're well financed, and they have dozens of incumbents spread across the province. But the challenge is in converting those positive electoral factors into real votes and real seats, including in areas they have not won in a long time.
With the Progressive Conservatives polling around 35 per cent, the NDP are seizing on that to say that the majority of Ontarians don't want Doug Ford to continue as premier, and are trying to get the anti-Ford vote to coalesce around them.
That's the Liberal tack as well, and two recent polls suggest they have pulled ahead of the NDP. But the New Democrats believe they will be able to attract the non-PC vote on election day, June 2.
"For us, to be able to finally talk to those people from a reasonable position of strength in terms of having 40 seats, having a well-financed party, having an experienced leader, as compared to where the Liberals are today is a dramatic difference from going into 2018," NDP campaign director Michael Balagus said in a recent interview.
The Liberals were cut down in 2018 from a majority government to holding just seven seats, not enough for official party status. That's not the party that will succeed in toppling Ford, the NDP will be telling voters.
"We cannot afford, as a province, to wait four years in hopes that maybe the Liberal party will be strong enough again to get rid of him," Balagus said.
"If you want him gone this time (the message) is you've got to get behind us. We've got to come together and do it."
But where some see an experienced leader in Andrea Horwath, others see someone who is taking a fourth kick at the can, who may have already grown the party as much as she can.
"This is going to be sort of a key question: Does she still have the capacity to continue to move the party forward," said Cristine de Clercy, a political science professor at Western University.
For a period during the 2018 campaign, it appeared as though the NDP could win. Then their lead quickly dissipated and the Tories eventually won a large majority.
In this election, New Democrats need to not only gain more seats, but hang onto all of their existing ones, retaining Liberal voters that they picked up last time, de Clercy said, and that may be easier said than done with the Liberals in the midst of a rebuilding effort.
"In 2018, (Horwath) was fighting a wounded and dying Liberal party, so it was a different kind of political contest," she said.
Chris Loreto, the managing principal at public affairs firm StrategyCorp and a Progressive Conservative on the party executive, said the right mix of factors for the NDP to win includes voters being angry with the Tories, being unattracted to what Liberal leader Steven Del Duca is offering, and actually being open to the NDP leading the province.
"When it looked like they were they were going to ride a bit of a wave in the last election, people began to put the brakes on a bit," he said. "They weren't ready then. The question is, are they ready now for potentially an NDP government?"
The NDP's broad-based support – they hold seats in the north, south and southwest, the east and the Greater Toronto Area – poses a challenge for campaign messaging, Loreto said. They will be battling the Liberals for seats in Toronto, while contending with Tories in places like Windsor, in particular for blue-collar, autoworker votes.
"They have a difficult task of trying to drive differentiations against different oppositions in different geographies," Loreto said.
Balagus said southwestern Ontario was the region where support collapsed in 2018, costing them government. It will be a key area to target this time, he said, along with Greater Toronto Area ridings in Mississauga, Scarborough, Brampton and Durham Region.
In terms of messaging, the NDP will be focusing on what needs to be fixed and how they pledge to address those problems, but will also be reminding voters of the party's strong position as a challenger to Ford,relative to the Liberals, and highlighting parts of the Liberal record that are still unpopular with voters.
They will also be comparing Horwath and Del Duca, Balagus said.
"That's probably our greatest strength in dealing with cross-pressure Liberal-NDP voters," he said.
"I mean, there's a reason that us and the Conservatives spent money to get Steven Del Duca in front of voters. It's because we know what happens when he does," Balagus said, referring to anti-Del Duca ads both parties ran late last year.
Alex Callahan, public affairs director for Strategies 360 anda former NDP staffer, said advertising will be important, and the party can do more than it traditionally has, because fundraising has gone so well. The party raised $1.72 million in the first quarter of this year alone, it said.
"You can have more visibility to the province," Callahan said. "You can obviously focus it in particular areas, but you'll have the capacity to have it in more regions, which you need if you're going to grow from 40 seats."
Callahan said he believes a federal NDP-Liberal confidence and supply pactwill help provincial New Democrats on the campaign trail. The agreement ties the NDP into supporting the Liberal minority government until 2025 and, in return, the Liberals are backing a string of NDP priorities including affordable dental care and medication.
"I think it sends a message that these priorities are a real priority," Callahan said.
The NDP platform released Monday includes pledges to accelerate pharmacare and dental care, not waiting for the federal plan to kick in.
"I think often one of the challenges is that people haven't elected an NDP government in Ontario since 1990. And it's not always seen as plausible, but the fact that these are NDP priorities that are being executed (federally) is good."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 26, 2022.
Allison Jones, The Canadian Press