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Ontario Votes: Routed in 2018, Liberals without candidates in 14 ridings

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After the worst electoral defeat in Ontario history four years ago, the Liberals are campaigning without candidates in 14 ridings — three in the London region — in what one expert says may be an early sign the party is trying to zero in on where it can win as it tries to come back from the political wilderness.

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Days into the campaign, the Liberals have candidates running in 110 of the province’s 124 ridings, still missing names on the ballots in Sarnia-Lambton, Chatham-Kent-Leamington and Lambton-Kent-Middlesex, all seats that have been held by the Progressive Conservatives for more than a decade.

“We look forward to nominating our candidates in those ridings in the near future,” regional press secretary Will Wuehr wrote in an email Thursday. “We will run a full slate of 124 candidates.”

While it’s not uncommon for some parties, especially smaller ones, to nominate candidates after an election is called and turn those into campaign events, it’s less common for the Big Three parties.

The Liberals are going into the campaign missing candidates in more than 10 per cent of Ontario’s ridings, after their 15-year run in office ended with only seven seats in their 2018 election loss to Doug Ford’s Tories.

ONTARIO ELECTION: The early outlook in the 10-riding London region

Besides the London region, the Liberals have candidate vacancies in northern Ontario, including Sault Ste. Marie and Timmins, and in southern ridings, including Whitby, Wellington-Halton Hills and Haldimand-Norfolk.

The New Democrats and the Tories have full slates of candidates provincewide.

The Liberal gaps could mean the party is concentrating where it believes it can get the biggest electoral payoff, said Andrea Lawlor, a political scientist at King’s University College, a Western University affiliate.

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“You could view it as a difficulty to find quality candidates. But on the other hand, you could view it as a strategic move, focusing resources on areas they know they can win,” Lawlor said Thursday.

“Right now, it doesn’t seem like the seat in Sarnia-Lambton, for example, is a place they think extra resources will change the game for them.”

Lawlor said the Liberals have to be even more strategic in this election after their catastrophic defeat in 2018 and the pandemic, both of which likely made political fundraising even harder.

The Liberals under Kathleen Wynne came out of the last election with too few seats to hang onto official party status in the legislature.

In the 10-riding London region, which ranges as far west as Chatham-Kent-Leamington, east to Oxford and Perth-Wellington and north to Huron-Bruce, the Liberals ran third in every riding, losing their last seat in the area — London North Centre, which had been deputy premier Deb Matthews’ turf — to the NDP.

The PCs won seven seats, the NDP three.

In seven of the 10 ridings, including the three still without Liberal candidates, the Grits won less than 10 per cent of the vote.

Lawlor said she expects the Liberals will try to capitalize on new leader Steven Del Duca in the four-week campaign, to try to connect with voting blocs who felt “left out in the cold” by the Ford government.

“The campaign is the time to let the leader generate some enthusiasm for the party. That enthusiasm has been lacking for the Liberals in the last four years,” she said.

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“They can capitalize on the discontent felt by certain segments of the population, like health-care workers or essential workers . . . or parents who feel left behind by the pandemic because of school disruptions.”

Under Del Duca, the party may push voters to think about the PC government’s pandemic response, making the June 2 election a referendum on Ford’s leadership, Lawlor said.

“The Liberals can make us remember more than just the last month and really remind us of the different segments of the last four years,” she said.

“That would be one strategy we can expect to see come out in the coming weeks.”

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