BRAMPTON, Ont. — It’s hard to understate the electoral value of the Greater Toronto Area.
There are 55 seats densely packed together from Oshawa in the east, to Burlington in the west, to Newmarket in the north. You can drive from end to end in a few hours. It’s home to the country’s busiest airport and the assignment desks of most of the country’s major news organizations.
There are more seats here than in all of British Columbia, than in Alberta, or in all four Atlantic Canada provinces combined.
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau released his party’s platform here, in Mississauga, on Sunday and was campaigning in the region again Monday. Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer opened the second half of this campaign with events on Monday in battleground ridings in Whitby, Scarborough and Brampton and will start his day Tuesday in the GTA.
The state of play on Day 20 of this writ period, according to campaign workers and candidates from both the Liberal and Conservative teams, is a bit mixed. Both sides say Liberals are likely to dominate, as usual, in Toronto proper and are doing very well in the western part of the GTA, like Brampton and Mississauga, but the Conservatives are looking to rack up some wins in the eastern part of the GTA, in York and Durham regions.
And while GTA voters here have the same concerns as voters anywhere else in the country — affordability, climate change, taxes, housing and so on — there is a factor that is unique to this region: the province’s premier, Doug Ford.
WATCH: Federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh says voters in Ontario ‘let down’ by Trudeau, Ford
Ever since winning a smashing majority in the spring of 2018, Ford and his Progressive Conservative Party have squandered almost all their considerable political capital. As a result, the Ford name is politically toxic and it threatens to tilt the playing field in the GTA towards Trudeau’s Liberals and away from Scheer and the Conservatives.
Non-profit pollster Angus Reid Institute reported last week that four in 10 Ontario residents surveyed said their negative views of Ford were likely to dissuade them from supporting Scheer. In its monthly ranking of approval ratings of all premiers, also out last week, Angus Reid found Ford was the second most unpopular, with just 37 per cent of Ontarians surveyed saying they approve of his premiership.
And while these are polls of all Ontario voters, it is really the voters in the GTA who matter most in this, for they are the province’s biggest and most easily accessible block of swing voters.
In 2015, Trudeau just about ran the table in both the 25 seats in the city of Toronto itself and the horseshoe of 30 seats around it. Those results played a critical role powering the Liberals to their majority.
But Stephen Harper won his majority in 2011 when that horseshoe ‘905’ region — 905 is the region’s area code — went blue while the Liberal ‘Fortress Toronto’ was breached by a lot of NDP incursions into the downtown core.
This is the gateway to power.
It’s no surprise, then, that Trudeau and the Liberals try at every opportunity to link Ford to Scheer. And it’s working. Don’t take my word for it: That’s what federal Conservative candidates are saying as they knock on doors in their ridings. They’re being taken to task for the sins of Ford.
It happened to Scheer himself on Monday in Whitby, Ont., the riding won by Liberal Celina Caesar-Chavannes. (Caesar-Chavannes left the Liberal caucus to sit as an independent, citing concerns about Trudeau’s style of leadership, but is not running again.)
Scheer visited a centre that provides recreational and education services to children with autism and with disabilities to announce that he would loosen restrictions on who could qualify for disability tax credits. But while there, he had to face a group of parents of children with autism and disabilities who had been upset about Ford’s rough treatment of them and their kids. (Scheer’s campaign staff say that the Conservatives will have an announcement later in this campaign specifically aimed at parents of kids with autism. That may be good policy but it will also be good politics.)
It may get worse for Scheer. The Ford government and the province’s secondary public school teachers are on a collision course that could see teachers go on strike before the Oct. 21 federal vote. There is no way that would help out Scheer’s cause.
WATCH: Trudeau says Scheer is asking people to ‘double down on Doug Ford’
Still, Scheer is fighting back by invoking the ghost of Kathleen Wynne, the Liberal premier that Ford replaced in 2018. At his morning press event in Whitby, Scheer brought up Wynne’s name on more than a few occasions as he tries to tag Trudeau with Wynne’s unpopularity.
“People in Ontario understand all too well what happens when Liberal governments are allowed to raise taxes, run massive deficits that threaten social services when those governments are allowed to govern,” Scheer said when asked about this strategy of bringing up Wynne’s name.
“We can do, at the federal level, what Ontarians did in the last election, which is to throw out a scandal-plagued, deficit-running, tax-hiking, Liberal government and replace it with a government that will live within its means to put money in the pockets of hardworking Ontarians.”
The problem for Scheer, though, is that Wynne’s name no longer has the potency for a campaigning Conservative that it did for Ford. Ontario voters got their pound of flesh from the Ontario Liberal Party last year. That demon has been exorcised.
But frustration with Ford is fresh. And Scheer may yet pay the price for that.