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Conservatives take Liberal stronghold in last-minute Toronto byelection victory

Hours after Canadians went to bed disappointed by a Stanley Cup loss Monday night, the Conservatives scored a stunning byelection upset to win in the longtime Liberal stronghold of Toronto-St. Paul's.
In a stunning early morning upset, Conservative candidate Don Stewart secured a byelection victory in the longtime Liberal stronghold of Toronto — St. Paul's. A Conservative supporter shows voting results on his phone at an federal byelection election night event for Stewart in Toronto, on Monday, June 24, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

Hours after Canadians went to bed disappointed by a Stanley Cup loss Monday night, the Conservatives scored a stunning byelection upset to win in the longtime Liberal stronghold of Toronto-St. Paul's.

Conservative candidate Don Stewart eked out the win by just 590 votes over Liberal Leslie Church in an early morning upset, yanking away a riding the governing Liberals have held for more than 30 years.

Pierre Poilievre demanded Prime Minister Justin Trudeau call a snap election after what the Conservative leader described as a "shocking upset" on social media Tuesday.

"Here is the verdict: Trudeau can’t go on like this. He must call a carbon tax election now," Poilievre said on X.

Stewart trailed Church for hours overnight as poll workers slowly counted ballots that were stacked with independent candidates, thanks to a protest group trying to make a point about the first-past-the-post system.

Stewart tried to sound upbeat when he visited his campaign office at around 11:30 p.m., but he didn't quite succeed as the polls showed his opponent in a steady lead.

"Let's not give it up," he said.

The results flipped just before 4 a.m. eastern time when Tories jumped into the lead with just three polls left to be counted.

Independent candidates, including dozens who were members of the Longest Ballot Committee protest group, earned a combined total of more than 1,100 votes, representing about three per cent of the total votes cast. The Liberals lost to the Conservatives by a 1.6 per cent margin.

The curtains were drawn at Stewart's campaign office, a ground-floor unit in midtown Toronto, on Tuesday afternoon. A handwritten note — "Thank You St. Paul's!!!" — was taped to the window.

The newly elected politician also thanked his supporters and volunteers in a social media post Tuesday.

"The results sent Justin Trudeau a loud and clear message: He is not worth the cost," Stewart said in a post on X, echoing a Conservative slogan.

At an unrelated announcement in Vancouver, Trudeau said it was obviously not the result Liberals desired, "but I want to be clear that I hear people's concerns and frustrations."

"These are not easy times. And it's clear that I and my entire Liberal team have much more work to do to deliver tangible, real progress that Canadians across the country can see and feel."

After the announcement, Trudeau walked away as reporters attempted to ask questions.

The results represent a massive victory for Poilievre and his Conservatives, who haven't won a single seat in Toronto proper since 2011.

Church said she plans to run again as the Liberal candidate in the next general election.

"Yesterday voters in Toronto-St. Paul's sent us a clear message, that they want us to re-earn their trust," Church said in a statement posted to X on Tuesday.

"They want a government that fulfils its promise to be there for them."

The race was widely considered a must-win for Trudeau, and the loss could trigger calls for him to step down after 11 years as Liberal leader.

The defeat for the Liberals is a kick to a party already down in the polls. The vote proves the polls reflect reality, said Scott Reid, who worked as the director of communications for former prime minister Paul Martin.

"I don't think it's possible to overstate how consequential this byelection loss is," Reid said.

"Its implications could be vast for the government, for the prime minister, for the timing of the next election. I mean, this is a Yahtzee."

Typically, when Conservatives do well in urban ridings, it's because the New Democrats have siphoned off support from left-wing voters, said Ginny Roth, a Conservative strategist who served as Poilievre's director of communications during his leadership race.

That wasn't true for the byelection Monday, when the Liberals and Conservatives went head-to-head and the NDP candidate garnered only 11 per cent of the votes.

The NDP never expected to take the riding, said Anne McGrath, a senior adviser to leader Jagmeet Singh. She said it was always a polarizing "fight between the Liberals and Conservatives."

But if the same holds true for other seats across the country, it could change the strategic dynamics of the next election, Roth said. "It's a really buoyant, exciting prospect for Conservatives who, I think, now can point to a very broad coalition of support."

The contest was Stewart's first election. The financial executive has close ties to the Conservative party as a longtime organizer and a former colleague of Jenni Byrne, an informal Poilievre adviser.

Toronto-St. Paul's, in the city's midtown area, includes some of Toronto's wealthiest addresses as well as an above-average number of renters, and one of the largest concentrations of Jewish voters in the country.

Carolyn Bennett, the former Liberal cabinet minister whose resignation in January triggered this byelection, won the seat nine times for the Liberals, and by more than 20 percentage points every time except once.

But the Liberal campaign was challenged by a cranky electorate that lost patience with Trudeau amid soaring inflation, unaffordable housing and a rise in hate crimes since the start of the Israel-Hamas war.

Conservatives appealed to the riding's Jewish community during the race, urging them to vote for the Tory candidate to send a message to Trudeau about what they describe as silence in the face of a rise in antisemitism.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 25, 2024.

— With files from Mia Rabson, Stephanie Taylor in Ottawa, Mickey Djuric in Ottawa, Brieanna Charlebois in Vancouver and Sheila Reid in Toronto

Laura Osman, The Canadian Press