Progressive Conservatives win Sault Ste. Marie provincial byelection

The Progressive Conservatives have won a provincial byelection in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., taking the seat away from the governing Liberals.

PC Ross Romano trumps NDP candidate; Liberal candidate finishes distant 3rd

Ross Romano is now the Progressive Conservative MPP for Sault Ste. Marie. (Erik White/CBC)

The Progressive Conservatives picked up a seat in the Ontario legislature on Thursday, taking Sault Ste. Marie from the governing Liberals in a byelection many saw as a barometer of support for Kathleen Wynne's government.

Ross Romano defeated NDP candidate Joe Krmpotich handily, with about 40 per cent of the vote compared to Krmpotich's 33 per cent. Liberal Debbie Amarosa was well behind at just under 23 per cent.

Newly elected Sault Ste. Marie MPP Ross Romano and Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown celebrate their byelection win. (Erik White/CBC)

Voter turnout was just under 44 per cent, which is quite high for a byelection.

"I want to say something to Kathleen Wynne. I'm coming," Romano told his supporters Thursday night.

"We will be ignored no longer. You seem to think that nothing exists north of Barrie. We're here and I intend to make sure you hear us loud and clear."

'We have an NDP premier'

PC Leader Patrick Brown also said the victory was a sign of northern Ontario's disaffection with the government in Toronto. His speech focused on how some saw the Sault as a "safe Liberal seat."

Asked if he was surprised to see the NDP come second, Brown said he sees little difference between the two other parties.

"Right now we have an NDP premier, so whether it's the Liberal or the NDP candidate, it's pretty much the same old, same old," Brown told reporters in the city.

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath and Sault Ste. Marie candidate Joe Krmpotich discuss their byelection loss. (Erik White/CBC)

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said she was disappointed in the byelection loss, but even more disappointed to see the Conservatives win after what she saw as a vague campaign.  

"Mr. Brown and his candidate didn't put a single tangible plan or commitment out there. That's very worrisome," she said.

Krmpotich now returns to the city council table, while Romano will be his MPP.

The campaign rhetoric got pretty snippy at times, but Krmpotich said it won't be a problem.

"We can work with anybody," he said. 

Krmpotich says he is likely to seek a re-match in the general provincial election, which is almost exactly one year from now.

Liberal well behind

The riding had been held by former Liberal cabinet minister David Orazietti since 2003, until he announced in December he would step down, prompting the byelection.

Orazietti had been a successful politician, winning nearly 60 per cent of the vote in the 2014 election, with the PC candidate at the time coming in a distant third.

This time, it was the Liberal candidate who trailed.

The victory doesn't change the balance of power in the legislature, but this is the second riding the PCs have taken from the Liberals in a byelection since 2014. It follows the party's victory in Scarborough—Rouge River last fall.

Thursday's byelection had been seen by many political observers as a litmus test for public sentiment going into the 2018 provincial election, said Trevor Tchir, a political science professor at Sault Ste. Marie's Algoma University.

Byelection signs blanketed Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., including this stretch of Wallace Terrace. (Erik White/CBC)

There had been questions about whether the Liberals could hold on to the riding despite recent low poll numbers for Wynne and her party, Tchir said.

Romano, a city councillor and lawyer, had campaigned on the idea that it was time to send a message to Wynne and the Liberal government about Sault Ste. Marie's dissatisfaction with high electricity rates and Liberal scandals.

Lowered expectations

He got a head start over the other candidates in the campaign, securing his party's nomination to run in the June 2018 general election last November.

He was ready to hit the ground running when Orazietti resigned.

The Liberals had lowered expectations ahead of the byelection, cautioning against reading too much into what it might indicate about how the party will fare at the polls next year.

"Byelections are always tough for government. That's a well-known fact," Deputy Premier Deb Matthew had said.

Residents of Sault Ste. Marie will return to the polls along with the rest of the province one year from now for the general vote.

2 councillors

Before the vote, Lisa Tominski said her neighbourhood in Ward 6, where Krmpotich and Romano were both local councillors, felt divided.

"By the look of the signs that are on the lawns, yes," she said while out walking her dogs among mostly orange and blue signs.

Tominski was happy to say she was voting for Romano, who is a personal friend and whom she believes can bring about real change in the health-care system.

Steel mill an issue

During this byelection, the financial troubles and uncertain future of Sault Ste Marie's largest employer, the Algoma steel mill, hung over the campaign. 

The company that operates the main steel mill in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., once known as Essar Steel Algoma, and before that Algoma Steel, is now known as simply Algoma. (Erik White/CBC)

The mill stares across the street at Franca Simonetti's home, which has a red sign and an orange sign in the front yard.

Her steelworker husband is for the NDP, but she decided to vote Liberal.

"We talk about it, but we don't argue about it. I see his point and he sees mine," said Simonetti.

"I don't know if it's going to make a big difference, but you have to go with what you're thinking and I'm thinking that for now we should stick with what we have."

But Simonetti says the Liberals need to do more to help the Sault, if they want to keep her support for the general election in June 2018.

New financing rules

Another way this Sault Ste. Marie byelection is a dry run for the general election a year from now is in how campaigns are financed.

A new law passed in December bans political donations from companies and unions and restricts citizens to giving $3,000 a year, instead of $30,000.

A new $3,000 annual limit for political party donations is a signifiant reduction compared to the previous $30,000 limit. (CBC)

In years past, a hotly contested byelection campaign, like this one in the Sault, was a great chance for parties to fill up their war chests.

During the 2015 Sudbury byelection, $500,000 was donated, about $400,000 to the victorious Liberals.

Now, under the new rules, Elections Ontario doesn't report byelection contributions separate from the annual donations to each party.

But in the month since the Sault Ste. Marie byelection was called, only about $165,000 across Ontario has been given to political parties, $138,000 of it to the Progressive Conservatives.

With files from CBC's Erik White, Sharon Musgrave and The Canadian Press


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