The Liberals managed to hold on to — and even to retake — some of the most narrowly contested ridings in the Greater Toronto Area during the federal election on Monday.
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole had clearly hoped to break through in the “905,” so named for the area code many voters in the region share, visiting several 905 ridings multiple times during the 36-day campaign.
It was a sensible approach. After all the ballots were cast in the 2019 federal election, only a few hundred to a few thousand votes separated the Liberal and Conservative candidates in several 905 ridings.
Heading into election night Monday, polling aggregator 338Canada.com had five of the region’s 30 federal ridings projected as “toss ups” between the Liberals and Tories.
The Liberals won, or were projected to win, in all but one.
That included Aurora–Oak Ridges–Richmond Hill, previously held by incumbent Conservative candidate Leona Alleslev. A former Royal Canadian Air Force captain, Alleslev was originally elected as a Liberal in 2015 before crossing the floor to join the Conservatives in 2018.
She took the riding during the 2019 federal election by a margin of 1,319 votes. This time around was even closer, with the CBC News Decision Desk calling the riding for Liberal Leah Taylor Roy with 1,046 votes separating the candidates.
In the riding of Richmond Hill, which was won by the Liberals in 2019 by just 112 votes — the smallest margin anywhere in the GTA — incumbent Majid Jowhari managed to extend the gap. When CBC News called the riding Monday night, 3,286 votes separated Jowhari from Tory challenger Costas Menegakis.
Another riding identified as a toss-up by 338Canada.com was Newmarket–Aurora, where Liberal incumbent Tony Van Bynen won by 2,878 votes in 2019. When the riding was called for Van Bynen late Monday, his margin of victory was just 1,902 votes.
The victory was slightly bigger in Whitby, another riding considered a toss up heading into election night. There, Liberal incumbent Ryan Turnbull managed to stave off defeat by at least 3,847 votes.
One bright spot for the Conservatives was King–Vaughan. As of Tuesday morning, Tory candidate Anna Roberts is projected to take the seat of Liberal incumbent Deb Schulte, by a margin of at least 1,372 votes.
Trudeau brand ‘can’t be dismissed,’ political strategist says
Jaskaran Sandhu, political strategist at State Strategy, said that he wasn’t necessarily surprised to see the Liberals largely maintain their hold on the Greater Toronto Area.
“I don’t think people were angry enough with the Trudeau Liberals to punish them in this election,” he told CBC News late Monday.
“The Trudeau brand means a lot in these incredibly diverse regions, found across the 905. And that brand can’t be dismissed,” he added, alluding to the legacies of both former prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau and his son Justin.
On issues such as immigration and combating racism and religious intolerance, “the Liberals are far more trusted in the 905 than the Conservatives,” Sandhu said.
“It may not show up in polls, but it is something you hear in conversations.”
O’Toole offered voters a more centrist conservatism during this campaign than his predecessor, Andrew Scheer, did in 2019, Sandhu noted. But O’Toole’s failure to make significant gains in the 905 — a region where success is essential to forming government — will be a test of his leadership moving forward, Sandhu said.
NDP gains didn’t materialize
Adding to the Tories’ difficulties in the 905 was the relative under-performance of the federal NDP, according to Nelson Wiseman, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Toronto.
Wiseman said he had expected the NDP to pull votes away from Liberal candidates in some key ridings, though that dynamic did not materialize on election night.
“That would have ticked the balance to the Conservatives in some of these ridings, even if their vote share didn’t actually increase,” he explained.
He added that, ultimately, voter attitudes toward the Tories in the GTA may have been shaped, at least in part, by a recent surge in COVID-19 cases in Alberta. As of Monday, Alberta had more than 20,000 active cases of COVID-19, far more than twice as many as any other province or territory.
Over the last year, O’Toole repeatedly praised Alberta Premier Jason Kenney for his response to the pandemic. The Tory leader faced difficult questions in the final weeks of the campaign about whether he still felt that Kenney’s government was handling the pandemic appropriately — questions that he largely failed to answer directly.
Wiseman said he believes that many voters in the 905 took notice, given the region has itself struggled through four waves of the illness.
Despite the Liberals’ ongoing success in the GTA, he added, Monday’s election was “no great victory” for the party.
“The Liberals didn’t call an election to win a minority. They thought they saw a path to a majority, which didn’t happen.”