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NEWS ANALYSIS

Andrea Horwath visits second time in five days

By Neil Bowen, Sarnia Observer

Joanne Rowe tells NDP leader Andrea Horwath about the funding challenges faced by group homes for special needs people. Horwath made a short stop in Sarnia Monday morning.NEIL BOWEN/Sarnia Observer

Joanne Rowe tells NDP leader Andrea Horwath about the funding challenges faced by group homes for special needs people. Horwath made a short stop in Sarnia Monday morning.NEIL BOWEN/Sarnia Observer

The last time Southwestern Ontarians voted NDP in big numbers, they took the Liberals to the woodshed.

New Democrat Leader Andrea Horwath, who blitzed the region Monday, is clearly hoping to tap some of that same anger that propelled Bob Rae into office nearly 30 years ago, when voters threw out a Liberal government that cynically called an early election just before a brutal recession hit.

And at least one prominent area politician, Sarnia Mayor Mike Bradley, says he senses his area is a riding “in play,” with the NDP poised to pick up Liberal support.

“The Liberal vote here is on the endangered species list,” said Bradley.

The question, with two days left to go until the election, is whether a Rae-style win — or even a few NDP gains — is in the cards for Horwath in the London region, which has been bedrock Progressive Conservative turf through several election cycles.

Rae’s NDP all but swept the region in 1990, even costing hometown premier David Peterson his London seat.

Horwath may not be in that terrain, but with the ruling Liberals facing certain defeat in Thursday’s election and Premier Kathleen Wynne — who’s admitted she won’t win — imploring people to elect Liberals in a bid to salvage seats, the NDP has its best chances in years to pick off area ridings.

That brought Horwath back here Monday, in a five-riding whirlwind with time running out before Thursday’s election, as the NDP tries to grab Liberal-held London North Centre (LNC) and seats in the region from the PCs, whom polls suggest are deadlocked in first with the NDP.

One thing Horwath made clear Monday is that she won’t be working with Wynne if the NDP wins a minority and the Liberals hold the balance of power.

“What we don’t need is Kathleen Wynne at the helm, again wielding power,” Horwath said in London North Centre, the region’s only open riding with 15-year Liberal cabinet minister Deb Matthews not running again. “We have to show people they don’t have to go from bad to worse,” said Horwath, meaning from the Liberals to the Doug Ford-led PCs. “Only the NDP can stop Doug Ford.”

As for Wynne’s plea for voters to elect as many Liberals as possible, to prevent the NDP or Tories from being given a blank cheque, Horwath had two words: “Tone deaf,” she said of the Liberal leader.

The NDP won two of the London region’s 10 seats in the last election in 2014, but ran second in six other races — the closest of which were LNC and Chatham-Kent-Leamington and Sarnia-Lambton, the latter two won by the Tories and both now targetted by the NDP in the campaign’s dying hours.

Ford insists he’s not worried about losing seats in the area, the backbone of the PC strength in the last legislature. But for a leader who needs to win big in urban Ontario, he’s spent valuable campaign time shoring up his rural Southwestern Ontario base where the Tories had their largest concentration of seats.

Sarnia and Chatham haven’t had NDP MPPs since the Rae government’s defeat in 1995, when Bob Huget and Randy Hope, now the Chatham-Kent mayor, went down with it.

Marion Boyd outlived the Rae government in London by one term, lasting as an NDP MPP until 1999 when her riding was merged with PC MPP Dianne Cunningham’s seat in a battle Cunningham won.

One observer said it may seem risky for Horwath to spend time in the campaign’s home stretch in far-flung Southwestern Ontario, when it’s the riding-rich Toronto area where elections are won or lost, but that could be a sign the NDP has internal polling showing a path to victory here if they flip crucial ridings.

“This is where thy have made the biggest polling breakthrough,” said Zack Taylor, a political science professor at Western Universty.

Except for Kate Graham in LNC, Taylor said the Liberals appear quite weak in the London area.

But while the NDP appears to have pulled slightly ahead in provincial polls, Taylor said the party’s vote is “inefficient” because it’s concentrated in areas such as downtown Toronto.

“Instead of racking up bigger surpluses in places where they already nailed it, they want to zero on places where the gap behind the Conservatives is fairly narrow, such as Niagara and Southwestern Ontario,” he said.

Besides LNC and Sarnia-Lambton, Horwath’s regional blitz Monday also took her to Chatham-Kent-Leamington, where the Tories won a close victory over the NDP last time, and to fortress PC ridings Elgin-Middlesex-London and Oxford, the latter Tory-held since 1995.

Bradley noted Peterson persuaded him to run for the Liberals in Sarnia in 1990, when Rae’s NDP won.

“I came in when the Liberals were at 52 per cent in the polls but the Rae wave was already sweeping through the region. I sense a lot of that right now,” he said, adding he’s no longer a Liberal but non-partisan.

WHAT OTHERS SAID

— In Chatham, former Liberal voter Randy DeWael not only met Horwath during her third stop in the riding, but left with an autographed campaign sign. He blamed his defection from the Liberals on rising electricity prices and other Wynne policies, adding he doesn’t believe Wynne “owns up to her wrongdoings.”

— Horwath, in Chatham, said concete median safety barriers for the Highway 401 west of London to Tilbury would be top of mind if the NDP wins the election. “There’s no way it should have been left this long, that there was no barrier whatsoever on big stretches of that highway,” she said.

— Liberal candidate Kate Graham in London North Centre — she will welcome Wynne to her campaign Tuesday, at 3 p.m. at the Margo and Tuffy restaurant on Adelaide Street North — said she remains confident. “This is a very strong seat for us,” she said of the riding held for 15 years by the retiring Deb Matthews.

— With files by Neil Bowen and Ellwood Shreve, Postmedia News reporters

CLOSE RACES TO WATCH
Andrea Horwath was in half the London region’s 10 ridings Monday, targetting three close contests:

LONDON NORTH CENTRE: Liberal-held since 2003, it’s the area’s only open race with Liberal minister Deb Matthews retiring. The NDP fell about 2,500 votes shy last time, the Tories a little more than 4,000 votes.
 
CHATHAM-KENT-LEAMINGTON: One of two area seats near the NDP’s three-riding Windsor fortress, it was one of six in the region where the NDP ran second in 2014, losing to the PCs only by about 2,500 votes.
 

 

SARNIA-LAMBTON: Another PC seat the NDP thinks is vulnerable, the riding returned PC Bob Bailey in 2014 — but only by a margin of about 2,400 votes over the second-place NDP candidate.