Horwath’s debate pitch to past Liberal voters a bold strategy that hit home

Apr 14, 2022 — Doug Ford was a no-show for last nights’ leaders’ debate sponsored by the Equal Pay Coalition, giving voters focused on defeating Progressive Conservative Premier Doug Ford an important chance to compare his challengers.

NDP leader Andrea Horwath made a direct pitch for the “strategic vote” of traditional Liberals supporters, and Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca put up no resistance.

NDP leader Andrea Horwath and Liberal leader Steven Del Duca sparred over policy positions, with Horwath drawing contrasts between her plans for minimum and early childhood educator pay with those of Del Duca. Horwath has committed to bring the minimum wage to $20 within a term of government while Del Duca has promised a boost to $16 then consult on further changes.

But the biggest moment of the night wasn’t policy, it was when the NDP leader made a direct pitch to traditional Liberal voters, telling them she is the one positioned to defeat Doug Ford.

“I’m asking folks who may have decided in the past to vote Liberal to keep Conservatives out to recognize that this time, that’s not the strategy,” Horwath said. “This time, that strategy will split the vote and cause Doug Ford to come up the middle.”

Ford’s PCs hold 63 seats in the Ontario legislature. Horwath’s NDP holds 40 seats. Del Duca’s Liberals hold only six. If the NDP can defeat 10 PC MPPs, Doug Ford’s majority would be defeated.

After the debate, the Liberal leader was asked about Horwath’s pitch by reporters. And Del Duca, who himself isn’t an MPP and doesn’t have a seat in the legislature, didn’t even try to argue his party was within range of defeating Ford.

“You’re not going to hear me talk about strategic voting,” Del Duca told reporters, because that’s not what people are talking about around this kitchen tables, he said.

Liberal strategists must have been squirming. They know well that for many Ontarians, the only goal is to cast a vote to defeat Doug Ford and they just need to figure out how to do it. Their boss conceded it wasn’t by voting for him.

The next few weeks will be a ‘progressive primary’ between Horwath and Del Duca. If Horwath succeeds, her next step is to find and flip the 10 seats she needs to defeat Doug Ford. If Del Duca wins this primary he may resurrect his party from its 2018 devastation, but given his low seat count, a continued Doug Ford government would be extremely likely.

Horwarth’s challenge is, though she has the MPP numbers on her side, the historic instinct of many Ontarians is to vote Liberal to stop Conservatives. Many Ontarians, particularly those anti-Conservatives who don’t follow politics closely, aren’t aware the situation has changed and that plan would backfire.

So last night Horwath’s team took a critical gamble, believing a strong and clear claim that her NDP is now the smart choice for anti-conservative voters would overcome any counter-claim from Del Duca. And it did. In fact there was no battle. Rather than counter Horwath’s claim, Del Duca withdrew and let her take the point.

Without doubt Horwath and her team should be pretty pleased. But there’s also reason for concern.

If Del Duca has no answer to the critical question of who is best positioned to defeat Doug Ford, this progressive primary might be over earlier than expected. Which means Doug Ford and his allies at Canada Proud and the Toronto Sun will have more time for personal attacks than the NDP campaign had planned for.

Tom Parkin is a frequent political columnist and commentator and principal of Impact Strategies. Contact Tom at tparkin@impact-strategies.ca.

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