Liberal stronghold now Ottawa's top swing riding, and it could flip

Ottawa West–Nepean, in Liberal hands for 15 years, could change hands if the Progressive Conservatives can maintain their momentum.

Ottawa West–Nepean in Liberal hands since 2003, but many voters remain undecided this time around

Liberal incumbent Bob Chiarelli is often recognized as knocks on doors during the campaign in Ottawa West–Nepean. (Amanda Pfeffer/CBC)

Even Liberal MPP Bob Chiarelli, victorious through three provincial elections here, is feeling the heat this time around.

"I'm finding a lot of concern on the part of voters," Chiarelli said last week while knocking on doors in a residential neighbourhood off Woodroffe Avenue.

"It's a very different election this time," Chiarelli said. "The dynamics are quite different. One of the concerns I hear is it's time for change. You know, 'What have you done for 15 years?'"

Many residents of Ottawa West–Nepean know him by name and reach out to shake his hand. But Chiarelli knows name recognition will only go so far.

Chiarelli shows a young resident the Liberal platform. (Amanda Pfeffer/CBC)

Chiarelli, the first mayor of post-amalgamation Ottawa and regional chair before that, was already a known commodity when he took the seat over from fellow Liberal Jim Watson in a 2010 byelection.

But his hold on the riding hasn't exactly been marked by landslides — he won by little more than 1,000 votes in two of the past three elections.

This election, Chiarelli said, there seem to be more undecided voters, lifelong Liberal supporters among them 

Marine Allen falls into that category. "So you're going for it again, are you?" she teased Chiarelli when he came knocking.

Allen said she's still leaning Liberal, but not because of the party's leader.

"You should keep your eyes and ears open. I'm not letting Kathleen Wynne take me by the bull horns and force me to vote," she said.

No. 1 swing riding

CBC poll analyst Eric Grenier describes Ottawa West–Nepean as the city's top swing riding.

"A swing riding will go from one party to the other in an election," he explained. "[It's] one that is usually a close race, and one that elections are decided upon.

"Ottawa West–Nepean would probably be tops of that list this election."

CBC poll analyst Eric Grenier describes Ottawa West-Nepean as one of the hottest races in the Ottawa area. (CBC)

The riding has consistently voted with the government in power since it was first reconfigured out of the old riding of Ottawa West in 1999.

If the PCs continue with a 20 to 24 per cent lead over the Liberals in Ontario, the riding will go PC, Grenier said.

PCs working hard to win it

"When you look at past elections and see a thousand-vote difference, you know, in two days of solid door knocking, that's a thousand votes," said PC candidate Jeremy Roberts.

It's clear the Progressive Conservatives aren't leaving it to chance.

"We've gotten a huge amount of attention from a lot of folks across Ottawa and across the province who want to help us out because they see this as a battleground," Roberts said.

Progressive Conservative candidate Jeremy Roberts said he's received positive responses while door-knocking, even in traditionally Liberal neighbourhoods. (Amanda Pfeffer/CBC)

The party's leader, Doug Ford, has gone door-knocking with Roberts, and some federal Conservative MPs are expected to visit in the campaign's final weeks.

But nothing about the race has been easy for Roberts so far. He lost the party nomination for the riding in 2017 to Karma Macgregor, a decision that was later controversially overturned.

With the late start, he's been door-knocking from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. seven days a week — starting out in the southern, suburban neighbourhoods where Tory support was highest in previous elections.

Tories go after other Liberal strongholds

Now his campaign is heading north where support has leaned Liberal, and Roberts said the response has been fantastic.

"We've been signing up memberships and getting out signs at a pace that's hard to keep up with," he said.

Roberts may only be 27 but he's no political neophyte. He first campaigned for the local PC candidate in the riding at age 14 and has worked as a political adviser to federal Conservative cabinet ministers.

The PCs and the Liberals have had a fierce rivalry in Ottawa West–Nepean. (Amanda Pfeffer/CBC)

Roberts can already count on the support of stalwart Tories like Richard Thompson Walker, who said he'll vote PC no matter the local candidate, the polls, or the performance of the party leader.

"Doug Ford, he doesn't bother me," said Walker. "He's new to the game and I think he'll do what he can to bring spending under control and bring the debt down."

NDP take on strategic voters

The NDP candidate, Chandra Pasma, is hoping to take advantage of PC voters disillusioned with their leader. 

Out canvassing near Britannia Beach, a longtime PC voter who supported Christine Elliott during the leadership race ran out to meet Pasma, telling her she's still undecided but likes NDP Leader Andrea Horwath. 

NDP candidate Chandra Pasma wants voters to consider the NDP option in light of NDP gains in provincial polls. (Amanda Pfeffer/CBC)

But the NDP is vulnerable if enough traditional supporters, like David Andrew, are worried that an NDP vote could help the PCs win.

"If it comes down to it and conservatives may win," Andrew said, "I don't like strategic voting, but I mean, as long as we don't have a Ford premier, that would be fantastic."

Pasma, an advocate for the Canadian Union of Public Employees, said she's telling strategic voters to think big.

"The NDP is solidly in second [in provincial polls] and we're still climbing, and the Liberals are in third and dropping, so the NDP is the strategic choice to stop Doug Ford," she said.

NDP volunteers, including candidate Chandra Pasma (in the striped shirt), canvas near Britannia Beach in the southern part of the riding, where there has been some NDP support. (Amanda Pfeffer/CBC)

Chiarelli taking nothing for granted

Chiarelli is taking nothing for granted.

"It will be close," he said, but added he's been underestimated in the last three elections, with polls putting him behind.

Polls don't consider the popularity of the local candidate, he said, and added that "incumbency is important."

But if Ottawa West–Nepean is in swing, it's not clear the result will have much to do with the incumbent, even for one who has never lost before.

This will be Chiarelli's fourth election campaign in the riding of Ottawa West–Nepean. (Amanda Pfeffer/CBC)