Annamie Paul’s plan to win a seat in Ontario is a risky bet that could pay off big

It took five years for Elizabeth May to finally win a seat in the House of Commons as leader of the Green Party. Annamie Paul, who took over the leadership in October, is hoping a riding in Ontario can help her book a ticket to Ottawa much faster than that.

But which one is her best shot — and just how likely is it that the Greens can break through in the province?

The Greens won three seats in the last election, two of them in British Columbia and one in New Brunswick. On Thursday, Paul announced that she would try to expand her party’s toehold in the House by seeking a seat in her native province.

“Greens are offering a positive, progressive, daring vision for Canada, and we will be running to win all across the country,” Paul said in her statement. “With this goal in mind, running in Ontario offers the perfect chance to grow the party.”

Paul has already demonstrated that she can find the Greens new votes in unlikely places. She captured 33 per cent of the vote in October’s byelection in Toronto Centre. The party had averaged just five per cent of the vote in the three previous general elections in the seat.

It wasn’t enough to win, however. The Liberals’ Marci Ien beat Paul by just over nine percentage points.

That’s long been the problem for the Greens — identifying where they can not only grow their support but actually win.

Green beachheads on the coast

The Greens do have a few regions in which they have a large enough base to win seats, such as in B.C. and Atlantic Canada. Support for the federal party overlaps with areas where provincial Greens hold seats in B.C., New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island.

Paul’s team has considered finding her a riding on either the east or west coasts. A seat like B.C.’s Victoria, where the Greens finished second and lost to the NDP by only three percentage points in 2019, would be a natural spot for Paul. But a candidacy there would open up the Greens to questions about whether it is a real national party if it only targets seats on Vancouver Island.

P.E.I., where the provincial Greens form the official Opposition, was the province in which the federal Greens took the highest share of the vote in the last election.

But it’s also unclear how Islanders would feel about a candidate from elsewhere being parachuted into their province.

Travel restrictions due to COVID-19 also make Atlantic Canada a bad place for a national leader to campaign if the next election is held before the pandemic is over.

Instead, the Greens are banking on a breakthrough in Ontario — and are looking at a few seats in particular.

On paper, Guelph looks like the best bet

On Thursday, CBC News reported that the Greens have winnowed down the list to a handful of ridings in southern Ontario: Davenport, Guelph, Parkdale-High Park, Spadina-Fort York and Toronto-Danforth. The party is also considering another run for Paul in Toronto Centre.

At first glance, Guelph seems like the obvious choice.

Of these six ridings, the Greens have averaged the most support in Guelph over the last three elections. Steve Dyck finished second to the Liberals’ Lloyd Longfield in 2019 with 25.5 per cent of the vote, putting him about 15 points back.

His score ranked as the ninth-best for a Green anywhere in Canada and second-best in Ontario. The Greens’ performance in Kitchener Centre was slightly better.

The Greens already have a foothold in Guelph. Ontario Green Leader Mike Schreiner won the seat in the 2018 provincial election, taking 45 per cent of the vote and outpacing the second-place Progressive Conservative candidate by a whopping margin of 23 points.

Ontario Green Leader Mike Schreiner won the seat of Guelph in the 2018 provincial election, the first seat won by the Greens in the province’s history. (CBC)

Convincing voters that a vote for the Greens can be a vote for a winner has always been a big challenge for the party. Voters in Guelph, however, don’t need to be convinced.

Internal polling conducted by the Green Party and provided to CBC News suggests the Greens have a good shot at winning the seat, trailing the Liberals among decided voters by roughly the same margin as in 2019. The poll showed that Paul’s candidacy would boost the party’s support by about 10 points over a generic Green candidate, potentially enough to make the difference.

The poll also suggests the Greens have a high ceiling in Guelph, with 49 per cent of voters in the riding willing to consider a vote for the party.

Hoping for a Toronto breakthrough at the NDP’s expense

Still, the Greens seem to be more excited about breaking through in Toronto by replicating the success Paul had in last fall’s byelection.

Toronto Centre appears to be Paul’s best chance in the city. She was able to grow her party’s support and has high name recognition in the riding, according to the Greens’ internal polling. The Greens’ ceiling in Toronto Centre is also slightly higher than in Guelph. But the same poll suggested that the Greens have about as much support in Toronto Centre today as they did in the byelection, and that wasn’t enough.

Toronto Centre has been a Liberal stronghold for decades, so it might be difficult for the Greens to chip away at the party’s support any further.

The other Toronto ridings being considered do not have a Green base upon which to build. Over the last three elections, the Greens have averaged just 3.7 per cent in Davenport, 3.8 per cent in Spadina–Fort York, 4.2 per cent in Parkdale–High Park and 5.9 per cent in Toronto–Danforth.

The internal polls, however, suggest that the Greens have roughly quadrupled their support in Toronto–Danforth and Spadina–Fort York. But that still puts them well back of the Liberals or NDP in both seats and the Greens’ ceiling — about a third of voters — is probably too low to give the party a decent shot.

Paul finished second in the October federal byelection in Toronto Centre, growing her party’s support in the riding to 33 per cent of the vote from just seven per cent in 2019. (Chris Young / Canadian Press)

It isn’t a bad starting point, though, and the Greens spot an opportunity where there is a base of progressive voters.

One thing that Toronto–Danforth, Spadina–Fort York, Parkdale–High Park and Davenport have in common is that they were formerly held by the New Democrats. The Greens are hoping that Paul’s Toronto appeal will be enough to pull enough voters away from the NDP to put the Greens in contention in these downtown urban ridings where they have never been all that competitive before.

It’s an ambitious goal for a party that hit a high watermark with just three seats in 2019. If Paul’s only ambition was to get into the House of Commons, she might look to a riding outside of Ontario on one of the coasts. Closer to home, a run in Guelph would make sense but it is far from a guarantee. Running in Toronto would be high risk — but, if it works, high reward, too.

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