Voters in Alberta head to the polls on May 29 to decide an election that, despite this western Canadian province’s historically rightward tilt, is shaping up to be a barn-burner where the incumbent United Conservative Party is engaged in a desperate fight to retain power against the center-left New Democratic Party. It's also a contest that features two of the most remarkable political comeback attempts in recent memory, one on each side of the aisle.
In this preview of Monday’s showdown for Alberta’s Legislative Assembly—the equivalent of a state legislature—we'll delve into the backstory that's brought us to this moment, along with a look at the make-or-break races that will decide this contest and shape the future of this province of 4.4 million people, Canada's fourth-largest and wealthiest.
How Did We Get Here?
First, a brief primer on Alberta’s political history. Starting in 1935, right-leaning parties began an unbroken string of victories that would last 80 years. More than half of that era belonged to the center-right Progressive Conservative Party, which held power for an incredible 44 consecutive years, from 1971 until that long streak at last came to an end in 2015.
While the name might sound strange to American ears, the PCs governed as a big-tent party that could credibly claim support of both centrist and more overtly right-wing factions. (About that name: The old federal Conservative Party inherited what remained of the center-left Progressive Party after it imploded during World War II—by then largely just its name—and became the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada. Alberta's local Conservatives eventually followed suit and changed their own name in the 1950s.)
But this alliance began to crumble in the dynasty’s waning years, especially after then-Premier Ed Stelmach increased the royalty rates that the provincial government collects from energy producers in this oil-rich jurisdiction in 2007. Subsequent resentment from the oilpatch fueled donations to the upstart Wildrose Party, a far-right outfit that tapped a telegenic but controversial former radio host and newspaper editorialist named Danielle Smith to lead it into the 2012 provincial election.
For the entire duration of that campaign, Smith’s Wildrose Party led the PCs (now run by Stelmach's successor, Alison Redford) in all publicly reported opinion polls, often by large margins. Yet in one of North America's greatest polling debacles of all time, Redford and the PCs pulled off a stunning victory when all ballots were counted, ultimately besting the Wildrose by a 44-34 margin and winning 61 of the legislature’s 87 seats, compared to just 17 for the Wildrose.
A popular hypothesis explaining Smith’s loss centered on her refusal to explicitly condemn bigoted anti-gay comments made by a Wildrose candidate in the waning days of the campaign, causing undecideds and left-leaning voters more accustomed to voting for the NDP or the centrist Liberals to lend their votes to the PCs—the only party with a chance of thwarting Wildrose—as an emergency measure. True or not, a failure to police that sort of bigotry would continue to haunt Smith in the years to come.
Despite her humiliating defeat, Smith hung around as the leader of the Wildrose Party in the provincial legislature and nevertheless looked primed to challenge the PCs yet again in the next election. What happened instead was shocking: In late 2014, Smith and most of her Wildrose colleagues switched sides—in parliamentary parlance, they "crossed the floor"—and joined the governing PC caucus, now led by newly minted Premier Jim Prentice, who'd won a party leadership contest to replace the scandal-tainted Redford as premier.
Prentice, betting that he could easily romp to reelection with a seemingly united right behind him, quickly moved to call a snap election in the spring of 2015—a full year ahead of schedule. While fixed election calendars are nearly always the rule in the United States, leaders in parliamentary systems often have flexibility when it comes to calling elections before a government’s full term in office would otherwise end. (In Alberta, that term is four years.) Prentice sought to take advantage of that power by ushering voters to the polls when he imagined the PCs were at their peak.
Not So Fast
But a funny thing happened along the way. What had looked to be a cakewalk for Prentice turned into a legitimate race. Despite the earth-shaking absorption of most of the Wildrose caucus into the PC fold, far-right dissidents reanimated the party under Brian Jean, a former member of the federal Parliament with the Conservative Party. Meanwhile, a newly scrappy NDP emerged under the leadership of Rachel Notley, a former labor lawyer and longtime party operative who’d won a seat in the Legislative Assembly in 2008 and had served in the party’s tiny caucus ever since.
Notley, a decidedly more skilled communicator than either Prentice or Jean, stunned the Canadian political world by powering her party from just four seats in the legislature to a majority of 54 seats when the dust settled. The shellshocked PCs and the rejuvenated Wildrose split the bulk of the remaining vote and were left with table scraps. Danielle Smith, for her part, gravely misplayed her hand and ultimately lost her local PC nomination contest (the equivalent of a party primary), blocking her path to reelection and seemingly terminating her political career.
Notley’s triumph represented the first time that a left-of-center party had won power in the province since 1930, when the long-extinct United Farmers of Alberta had last prevailed. Her victory over a divided right naturally enraged grassroots conservatives, and both the PCs and Wildrose faced enormous pressure to set aside their differences and unite under a single banner. Ultimately, both parties agreed to merge as the newly christened United Conservative Party, and their collective members voted to anoint another former federal Conservative MP, Jason Kenney, as their leader.
Kenney, a seasoned politician with years of governmental experience in Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s cabinet, deployed a pugilistic style of campaigning that translated into resounding electoral success against Notley in the 2019 election. Notley’s NDP, burdened by a global fall in oil prices during her term and an associated economic decline, lost to Kenney’s UCP by a 55-33 margin and were routed in almost every corner of the province outside of its loyal base in the provincial capital of Edmonton. The final result had the NDP surviving in just 24 seats, while the UCP clambered back to a comfortable majority with 63 seats.
Kenney, though, turned out to be the dog who finally caught the car. He could not, of course, resuscitate oil prices and found himself on the defensive over unpopular policies such as expanding coal mining on the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains. At the same time, he introduced a slew of painful austerity measures. However, those headaches were mere speed bumps on the road for Kenney compared to the rocky ride he endured during the length of the COVID-19 pandemic—a tumultuous journey of his own making.
Kenney struggled to satisfy the needs of protecting the province’s citizenry and its vulnerable healthcare system through public health restrictions while simultaneously preventing a caucus revolt from far-right UCP members bitterly opposed to any form of government intervention. He ultimately vacillated between reluctant action and total inaction, culminating in multiple public apologies that seemed to placate neither side. Things became so dire for Kenney that polls began to show his UCP losing to the NDP throughout 2021 and much of 2022, with a non-trivial number of voters opting for a fledgling right-wing party that had resuscitated a familiar name, the Wildrose Independence Party.
Kenney sought to douse long-simmering tensions regarding his leadership by agreeing to an internal leadership review vote for card-carrying UCP members, something for which there’s no real equivalent in U.S. politics. While Kenney ultimately won, he did so with an anemic 51.4% of the 34,000 votes cast, prompting him to resign both as Alberta's premier and as leader of the UCP.
Enter Stage Right: The Return of Danielle Smith
Kenney’s ouster sparked a major scramble among aspiring Conservatives to replace him, with the most surprising contender being none other than Danielle Smith. After her exit from electoral politics in 2015, Smith returned to her roots as a right-wing radio talk show host and political commentator.
From that perch, she attracted no small amount of controversy for spitting out a wide variety of off-kilter hot takes including, but definitely not limited to, advocating for the defunding of public education; championing junk science and conspiracy theories during the pandemic; and even repeating Kremlin-aligned talking points after Russian forces invaded Ukraine last year. But Smith’s dalliance with extremist rhetoric likely was a strength, rather than a weakness, in the UCP leadership contest, which she ultimately won with 54% of the vote on the sixth ballot of an instant runoff against half a dozen opponents last October.
Smith initially struggled to pivot away from her campaign pledges, which included seeking amnesty for public health law-breakers and amending the province’s human rights legislation to include vaccination status as class protected against discrimination—a blatant sop to anti-vaxxers, whom she called "the most discriminated against group that I’ve ever witnessed in my lifetime" in her very first press conference as premier.
Despite these early stumbles, Smith has attempted to parlay a surge in oil royalties that flooded provincial coffers in the last year into political gold for her party, through a series of spending promises that included utility bill rebates and monthly $100 “inflation relief” checks for seniors and families with children. This largesse is certainly a notable departure for a party and leader known for a dogmatic commitment to the reduction of the size of government and the erosion of the social safety net, but in an election year, it seems that vote-buying may be a good investment.
Unlike Smith, Notley has not spent time in the wilderness—only in the minority. Despite her loss to Kenney in 2019, the NDP kept Notley on as its chief, and there was never any question it would do so (even if she herself had doubts about her continued desire to remain in politics). But by leading her party into a third straight election, Notley is hoping to make history in a way no Albertan ever has: If the NDP is successful, she'd be the province's first premier to lose an election and then return to the top post by winning one.
Where We’re At
Despite Smith's baggage, her greatest asset for the UCP just might be her ability to completely deny any oxygen to the right-wing splinter parties that once threatened the UCP’s grasp on its base during the pandemic. Most dramatically, the Wildrose Independence Party, which at one point scored as high as 20% of the vote in opinion polling in 2021, imploded following Smith’s ascent to the UCP throne and is now only fielding two candidates in this year’s election.
That sort of split on the right played a central role in dooming Prentice and the Progressive Conservatives during the historic 2015 campaign: Roughly half of the seats the NDP won that year saw the PCs and Wildrose combine for a greater share of the vote, while the Liberals and another small centrist party, the Alberta Party, proved only a small impediment to Notley’s squad.
And yet, even with Smith’s right flank seemingly shored up this time, most opinion polling continues to show a competitive election between the UCP and the NDP. Notley’s NDP has framed the election as a referendum on leadership and trust, heavily emphasizing Smith’s long record of statements in favor of requiring Albertans to pay out-of-pocket for healthcare services, such as visits to family doctors, in attack ads.
With free public healthcare in Canada still broadly popular, even in a right-leaning province like Alberta, Smith was forced to respond by pledging that no residents would “ever have to pay” for medical services. (The healthcare debate is in fact a good illustration of just how different politics can be in a "conservative" Canadian province compared to a red American state. Alberta was in fact a pioneer of universal healthcare in the 1950s and served as a model for other provinces.)
Beyond the healthcare debate, voters have been subjected to an almost Trumpian barrage of controversies during the campaign, mostly stemming from Smith and the UCP. For instance, just prior to the official start of the campaign period on May 1, Smith professed her admiration for Republican Govs. Ron DeSantis and Kristi Noem—politicians well outside the mainstream of Canadian politics. Audio also surfaced from a 2021 podcast that Smith recorded in which she associated the 75% of Albertans who received COVID vaccinations with followers of Adolf Hitler.
The province’s ethics commissioner, meanwhile, released a report finding that Smith had violated conflict of interest laws and threatened democracy itself by attempting to interfere in the prosecution of a radical street preacher who was later found guilty of inciting an illegal border blockade during a protest against pandemic-related public health measures. Perhaps most astonishingly, a UCP candidate was caught on audio comparing transgender youth to adding fecal matter to a batch of cookies and falsely accusing a local school of providing litter boxes in classrooms for student use, compelling Smith to disavow her own party member.
Smith has attempted to distance herself from her own past statements from her talk radio days by labeling them “musings” from a past life that should somehow be out of bounds for consideration during her political campaign. It remains to be seen how tolerant voters will be of Smith’s controversies and constant deflections.
Public polling shows the race neck-and-neck, though recent trendlines show the UCP gaining on and even narrowly overtaking the NDP. But as in the U.S., Canadian elections are decided on a district-by-district basis (or as Canadians would say, riding-by-riding). Below, we'll break the province down into four main regions and highlight some of the most competitive contests, though much like with U.S. House elections, polls of individual constituencies are rare.
What to Watch on Election Night
The map below, created on the site Polling Canada, shows the seats each party currently controls, with lighter shades indicating more competitive districts. It also includes insets for more populous areas, including the capital of Edmonton in the center of the province, as well as Calgary, Alberta's largest city, toward the south.
For Americans tuning into this election, note that blue is the color of conservative parties in Canada, including the UCP and its federal counterparts; the NDP, again at both the provincial and federal levels, is always identified in orange. (The centrist Liberal Party of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau uses red, but the Alberta Liberal Party is all but defunct, running just 13 candidates this year, and no minor party realistically has a chance to win a single seat.)
Here are the key regions and races to watch on election night, along with the number of seats in each area that each party currently holds:
Calgary (21 UCP, 3 NDP, 2 vacant)
The province’s biggest city is also the biggest battleground of the campaign. In order for the NDP to win a majority, they will need to defeat the UCP in most of the city’s ridings, about three-quarters of which are hosting potentially competitive races. Notley and Smith have directed a large amount of resources and campaign time to the city accordingly.
However, while large and ethnically diverse, Calgary has a stubborn history of strongly favoring conservative parties at both the federal and provincial level, so the NDP faces an enormous challenge in overcoming old habits. (The roots of its political divergence from Edmonton are complex.) Some ridings on the far southern and western edges are likely out of reach for the NDP, while others that the UCP won by razor-thin margins in 2019 may be relatively easy pick-ups for the NDP this year (in particular, Calgary-Varsity, Calgary-Currie, and Calgary-Falconridge).
Edmonton (1 UCP, 18 NDP, 1 independent)
Edmonton has a long history as a left-leaning outlier in Alberta, and most districts in the city won't be particularly competitive in this election. The sole UCP-held riding, Edmonton-South West, was won by incumbent Kaycee Madu by a 3-point margin over the NDP in 2019.
While Madu is fighting hard for his political survival, anything short of a clean 20-seat sweep in Edmonton for the NDP would be something of a surprise given the NDP’s improved polling performance overall. Conversely, if the UCP manages to flip any seats in the city, it would be a major upset. (Note: One seat is currently held by an independent who was first elected as a New Democrat but is not seeking reelection; the NDP candidate should be favored to win here.)
The so-called “Edmonton Donut” (6 UCP, 1 NDP)
The NDP is making a strong push in several suburban and exurban ridings immediately surrounding the capital. These ridings include Sherwood Park; Strathcona-Sherwood Park; Leduc-Beaumont; Morinville-St. Albert; Fort Saskatchewan-Vegreville; and Spruce Grove-Stony Plain. Meanwhile, the sole NDP-held riding of St. Albert is a likely hold for the party. Any path to a majority for the NDP almost certainly involves flipping two or more of these “donut” ridings.
The rest of Alberta (32 UCP, 1 NDP, 1 independent)
This category consists of a mix of seats in rural areas and smaller cities. Most of them will be won by the UCP with comfortable margins, but there are a handful of opportunities for the NDP in this pile. Notably, Lethbridge-East had an unbroken streak of electing Liberal Party candidates from 1993 through 2008 and was won by the NDP in 2015; Rob Miyashiro, who is a former member of the Lethbridge City Council, is mounting a strong challenge to a UCP incumbent there.
Banff-Kananaskis, centered around the resort towns of Banff and Canmore, was a close loss for the NDP in 2019 and an enticing pick-up target this year. The NDP is also channeling resources into the small-city ridings of Red Deer-North and Red Deer-South, but winning either one would be something of an upset. Another long-shot opportunity for the NDP is the northern riding of Lesser Slave Lake, where former MLA Danielle Larivee is mounting a comeback attempt (and yeah, that name, which is shared by a few lakes and locales in Canada, is problematic). An NDP victory in any other riding in this category would be a shocker.
Polls close at 8 PM local time (10 PM ET). You can follow the results on the website of Alberta's official election agency or on any number of media sites, including the CBC and the Calgary Herald. Note that some close races may not be called on Monday night as some votes cast before Election Day may not get tallied until after.