Ottawa-area ridings up for grabs, party insiders agree

As the provincial election campaign kicks off, political strategists say all three parties are ready to battle for "absolutely critical" ground in eastern Ontario.

Eastern Ontario ‘absolutely critical’ election battleground this time around, strategists say

Political strategists say the hard-fought election battle between leaders Andrea Horwath, Kathleen Wynne and Doug Ford (left to right) will also play out in ridings in and around Ottawa. (Chris Young/Canadian Press, Michael Charles Cole/CBC and Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

Ottawa's political landscape could see a major shakeup this provincial election, with some established Liberal and PC seats poised for change, political strategists say.

Within the context of an electorate ready for change, Liberal insider Andrew Steele believes there's a lot up for grabs in the region.

"Much like the 905 belt around Toronto, those suburban seats around Ottawa are going to represent one of the major battle grounds of this election," said Steele, vice-president of StrategyCorp.

He said that's because Ottawa has a number of ridings where there are two parties jockeying for placement in areas that are neither entirely urban nor entirely rural.

Even when it comes to well-established Liberal incumbents, including prominent cabinet ministers, Steele isn't ruling out a shift in some urban Ottawa ridings.

Neither is conservative strategist Denise Siele, who calls eastern Ontario an "absolutely critical" election battleground.

"All three parties are particularly keen not only to maintain their seats where they have them, but also to pick up seats where they don't," said Siele, a Hill Solutions partner.

PCs look to swing seats

The Progressive Conservatives are taking aim at seats held by Liberals for more than a decade.

Siele said candidates in Ottawa West–Nepean and Orléans will try to tap into a prevailing thirst for change.

"Ottawa West–Nepean is always a swing seat and it tends to go with the government. It's currently held by the Liberals, a former mayor, but the key thing is there's a candidate [Jeremy Roberts] for the conservatives that's really making some ground."
Party insiders say Ottawa West–Nepean will be a riding to watch, with NDP candidate Chandra Pasma, Liberal incumbent Bob Chiarelli and PC candidate Jeremy Roberts (left to right). (Submitted)

For Steele, the seat should make for a "fascinating" contest.

Incumbent Bob Chiarelli, currently Wynne's infrastructure minister, has taken the seat each election since Jim Watson, currently Ottawa's mayor, stepped down. With the PCs consistently taking more than 30 per cent of the popular vote, Steele said it's possible they could wrest the seat from the Liberals this time.

The situation in Orlé​ans is similar: winnable for the PCs, but only if Ford really takes off.

"Those are the kind of seats you need for a majority," Steele said.

NDP targets 2 urban ridings

With provincial polls showing sinking support for Liberal Leader Kathleen Wynne, and NDP Leader Andrea Horwath inching closer to second place, the NDP is ramping up its campaigning across the province, and setting their sights on downtown Ottawa.

"This is the biggest campaign the NDP has ever run, with more money," said Sally Housser, a senior consultant with Navigator and veteran of federal and provincial NDP campaigns.

Signs for Ottawa Centre NDP candidate Joel Harden started springing up throughout the downtown riding well before the official start of campaigning, and Housser expects Harden to run a "very active" campaign.

Prominent Liberal and star cabinet minister Attorney General Yasir Naqvi is looking to secure the downtown riding for another term — a "pretty safe seat," according to Steele.

But he also understands why the NDP think it could be winnable.

"There is a kind of core of New Democrats there. It's an area with high levels of unionization, a lot of younger people," he said.

"There's a lot of potential there for the NDP, but I think that short of a province-wide swing that would see the NDP supplanting the Liberals as the main opposition to the Conservatives, I don't know how you're going to get an NDP win out of that seat."

Even without a genuine fear for his seat, Naqvi could find himself tied to the riding and kept away from other parts of the province where he might help Wynne harness support.

'Progressive vote' holds sway

In Ottawa South, Housser points to Eleanor Fast as an "extremely strong" candidate.

The riding has been consistently Liberal since 1987, but Steele sees a scenario where incumbent John Fraser might get into trouble.

"If the conservatives start racking up huge numbers of seats, a seat like that could be lost. But not in a close contest," he said.

In either instance, Steele, a former McGuinty adviser, said results could come down to the "anything but conservative" vote.
John Fraser, the Liberal incumbent for Ottawa South, retained his seat with nearly 50 per cent of the vote in 2014, but strategists say the Liberals could lose the riding in the event of a conservative sweep. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

"So long as the, I'll call it the progressive vote, consolidates around the Liberals, then a seat like Ottawa South should be able to be maintained by the Liberals."

But with a strong showing from NDP Leader Andrea Horwath in this week's debate, combined with a boost in polls, Housser expects more "a vote for Kathleen Wynne is a vote for Doug Ford" messaging.

Wooing rural voters

Whatever happens during the campaign, there will be at least two new faces from eastern Ontario at Queen's Park.

Glengarry–Prescott–Russell is without an incumbent, since Liberal MPP Grant Crack opted not to run again, and Carleton is a brand new riding.

Siele sees Crack's withdrawal as a prime opportunity for PC candidate Amanda Simard to scoop up the seat, but Steele isn't convinced.

The mainly rural riding, which also contains the Ottawa neighbourhoods of Cumberland and Vars, has the largest francophone community in the region.

"For a seat like the new seat of Carleton, which is Norm Stirling's old stomping grounds, Doug Ford's a pretty good candidate," said Steele. "But for a seat like Glengarry–Prescott–Russell, the populism, the kind of anger of Ford's appeal, might not be shared by the francophone population there."

The newly redrawn Kanata–Carleton seat could also be a hot race for the PCs, with newcomer Merrilee Fullerton taking on former PC and now Trillium incumbent Jack MacLaren.
Incumbent Jack MacLaren has been seated away from his former colleagues at Queen's Park since he was ousted from PC caucus. (Mike Crawley/CBC)

Steele said the possibility of vote splitting on the right presents an opportunity to the Liberals.

"There's a vote that likes MacLaren, and they like him a lot. In a Patrick Brown scenario, I think we were more likely to see that vote split. With Ford, can MacLaren differentiate himself enough from the Ford candidate on enough issues to hold onto enough to win the city? Harder than it would have been under Brown."

The bottom line

All three party insiders agree on one point: the political landscape in the Ottawa region will likely look very different this time next month.

Candidates have an opportunity to tap into a province-wide desire for change, and the potential for a broad sweep by one party was there even before the official start of the campaign.

With many experts suggesting power moves will be made outside the Greater Toronto Area, Siele said parties will ignore the National Capital Region at their peril.

"It's absolutely critical, for all of them."

Ontarians head to the polls on June 7.


Elyse Skura is a reporter based in Tokyo, and a consulting producer for NHK World Japan. She’s also worked for CBC in Iqaluit, Ottawa and Thunder Bay.