Alberta’s United Conservative Party emerged bloodied but still standing in Monday’s bitterly contested provincial election.
Danielle Smith’s UCP dominated outside Alberta’s two largest cities while retaining enough support in Calgary to overcome an NDP sweep in Edmonton and win a second consecutive majority government.
"To paraphrase our dear friend (former Alberta premier) Ralph Klein, welcome to another miracle on the Prairies,” Smith told cheering supporters on the Calgary Stampede grounds.
Smith thanked the hundreds of thousands of Albertans who voted UCP, but also addressed those who did not.
"Though I didn’t do enough in your judgment to win your support in this election, I will work every day to listen, to improve and to demonstrate to you that I can be trusted to improve on the issues you care so deeply about.”
The UCP were winning or elected in 49 seats to 38 for Rachel Notley’s NDP in the 87-seat legislature, but a final tally was unknown early Tuesday given close races in Calgary.
The change represents a 14-seat swing compared to the 63-24 vote split between the two parties in 2019.
It was an election night beset by slow reporting from Elections Alberta. Only a small fraction of results were available 90 minutes after polls closed and a UCP win wasn’t called for another 90 minutes after that.
Smith easily won her seat in Brooks-Medicine Hat, as did Notley in Edmonton-Strathcona.
Notley told supporters at a downtown Edmonton hotel she will stay on as leader and harness the power of the largest official Opposition in the province’s history.
“We will continue to speak up on behalf of Albertans who struggle to have their voice heard. We will fight for better health care, better education, better jobs," Notley said.
"And, my friends, we will be unequivocal in our demand for respect for the rule of law and an unqualified belief in human rights and basic dignity.”
Support for third parties, such as the centrist Alberta Party, fell away as voters concentrated on either supporting or defeating the two main contenders.
There were 758,550 votes cast in advance polling, smashing the previous record of 700,746 in 2019.
It was the second victory in seven months for the 52-year-old Smith. She had been out of politics for seven years, working mainly as Calgary-based radio talk-show host and political pundit.
Key cabinet ministers retained their seats, including Adriana LaGrange (Education), Rebecca Schulz (Municipal Affairs), Nate Horner (Agriculture), Rick Wilson (Indigenous Relations) and Nathan Neudorf (deputy premier and Infrastructure).
However, Jason Copping, who was health minister, was defeated in Calgary-Varsity as were Nicholas Milliken, the minister for mental health and addiction, in Calgary-Currie, and deputy premier Kaycee Madu in Edmonton-South West.
Justice Minster Tyler Shandro was losing by seven votes as of early Tuesday to NDP challenger Diana Batten in Calgary-Acadia.
Smith ran on a platform of fighting crime and lowering personal income taxes in what is already the lowest-taxed jurisdiction in Canada. She promised a bill forbidding any future hikes to corporate or personal income taxes without a referendum.
She also aimed to woo voters in Calgary by announcing, on the eve of the race, a $330-million provincial contribution to a $1.2-billion deal with the city and the owners of the Calgary Flames for a new NHL arena.
The NDP dominated in Edmonton, a city in which they won all but one seat in 2019.
The three Calgary NDP incumbents — Kathleen Ganley, Irfan Sabir and Joe Ceci — were all re-elected, as were stalwarts Sarah Hoffman, Shannon Phillips and Heather Sweet.
Jennifer Johnson was the winning UCP candidate in Lacombe-Ponoka, but her future wasn’t clear.
During the campaign, Johnson apologized for comments she made last year comparing transgender students to feces. Smith has said Johnson would not sit in the UCP caucus because of the remarks but later, when asked about Johnson, said she believes in redemption and second chances.
The vote capped a bitter campaign that began even before the writs were issued May 1. Both parties warned the other could not be trusted with the economy or with fixing a health system plagued by long surgical waits, teeming emergency wards and a shortage of family doctors.
Smith was dogged by a litany of comments and actions — past and present — that moved the party further to the political right while alienating moderates and prompting some former Progressive Conservatives to announce they were parking their vote with the NDP.
Smith had compared the COVID-19 vaccinated to followers of Adolf Hitler. And two weeks ago, Alberta’s ethics commissioner concluded Smith breached a fundamental democratic firewall earlier this year by leaning on her justice minister, unsuccessfully, to drop the criminal case against a COVID-19 protester.
Smith also refused to disavow comments from her pundit days that she would like to see patients pay out of pocket for some medically necessary services in order to keep the system sustainable. However, she promised on the campaign trail that she would respect the sanctity of medicare.
She also promised to revisit, after the election, proposals such as abandoning the RCMP for a provincial police force and pulling out of the Canada Pension Plan.
There are questions around what role a growing faction within the party called Take Back Alberta will have with Smith’s government.
The fundamentalist libertarian movement has links to last year’s protest against COVID-19 restrictions that blocked the main United States border crossing at Coutts, Alta., for two weeks. The group successfully backed a slate that forms half the UCP governing board with plans later this year to take over the other half.
Smith, the former leader of the Wildrose Party, won the UCP leadership in October, capitalizing on broad party resentment toward then-leader Jason Kenney, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and COVID-19 health rules.
The win was a vindication for Smith, after presiding over two of the biggest debacles in recent Alberta conservative history that long made her persona non grata within the movement.
In 2012, Smith’s Wildrose saw a late election polling lead evaporate after she questioned the science of climate change and refused to sanction candidates for intolerant remarks, including one who called on gay people to repent or face eternal suffering in hell’s “lake of fire.”
In 2014, Smith tried to unite the fractured conservative movement by leading a mass floor crossing of her Opposition Wildrose to the governing Progressive Conservatives.
The Wildrose and PCs joined forces to create the UCP in 2017 and, led by Kenney, defeated the NDP in the 2019 election.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 29, 2023.
— With files from Ritika Dubey and Angela Amato in Edmonton and Bill Graveland and Colette Derworiz in Calgary.
Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press