After a spectacular defeat, the soul-searching begins for Ontario Liberals

With no leader and possibly no official party status, the Liberals will face a steep climb back to political relevance. Many observers say that will take drastic changes nearly across the board.

The Grits won only 7 ridings and earned less than 20% of the popular vote

Former premier Kathleen Wynne resigned as leader of the Liberal party Thursday night. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

After suffering a spectacular rebuke from voters in Thursday's election, Ontario's Liberals must now face the daunting task of rebuilding their party against steep odds.

With just seven seats, the Grits may no longer have official party status at the Legislature. They are also without a leader after the embattled former premier Kathleen Wynne announced she was stepping down late Thursday.

Party insiders and analysts agree that to recover, regroup and crawl out of Ontario's political wilderness, the Liberals will need to make drastic changes nearly across the board.

The soul-searching could include shifts in the party's policies, messaging and even ideology.

Party must 'tremendously change' approach

While Liberal support appeared to crater during the election campaign, Sandra Pupatello, who lost to Wynne in the 2013  leadership race, says the party began losing voters long before June 7.

She believes the Liberals must now "have a serious look at where they are, who they are and what they have historically been."

To the centrist-leaning Pupatello, that means a shift away from the left-leaning policies and spending plans endorsed by the Liberals in recent years.

The Liberal election platform included promises for expanded pharmacare and free preschool childcare, alongside years of deficit spending.

Sandra Pupatello, right, congratulates Katheen Wynne during the Liberal leadership convention in 2013. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

"I actually believe they have to tremendously change their approach," Pupatello told CBC Toronto.

Pupatello says the Liberals simultaneously alienated their base while giving more progressive supporters a strong incentive to vote for Andrea Horwath's NDP.

"If you're trying to be a different party, people will vote for the real thing," she said, adding that the electorate's "inexplicable" dislike for Wynne was also a major factor into Thursday's result.

Meanwhile, Liberal insiders are spinning the historic loss as an opportunity to reconnect with Ontarians and reshape the party based on their feedback.

"I'm hopeful to see a fresh look and I think that'll be a very powerful contrast to the Ford government," said Liberal strategist Tiffany Gooch.

'We’ll need to see more torches passed to young activists and organizers,' said Liberal strategist Tiffany Gooch. (Supplied)

Is there still room in the middle?

Others say the state of politics in 2018 leaves little room for a successful centrist approach.

"That logic, that wisdom is now dead," said Andray Domise, a contributing editor at Maclean's and a Toronto community activist. "It's over."

To Domise, Thursday's results reflect a growing trend in western democracies around the world, where right-leaning, populist governments are experiencing a surge in popularity.

"That can't be dealt with with facts and logic and decorum," Domise said. "That's been absent for a very long time."

Andray Domise, who once ran against Rob Ford in a municipal election, says a centrist approach can no longer succeed in Ontario politics. (Andray Domise for Toronto City Council - Ward 2/Facebook)

Instead, Domise is calling on self-styled progressive parties to take a new, more aggressive approach while also considering the needs of their supporters.

That includes nominating local activists and organizers who better understand their communities and don't resemble the traditional status quo.

"Groom them and bring them up to be part of a future Liberal party rather than continuously dipping into the well of MBAs and lawyers who have progressive leanings," Domise said.

The next time Ontario votes in 2022, Gooch says she too wants to see more grassroots activists on the ballot.

The party, however, seems poised to slide back into its traditional space between the Progressive Conservatives and NDP.

"This pendulum swinging of extremes is a difficult way to build a province," Gooch said. "The Liberals, in that centre space, need to be the balanced approach."