This was always Tory country – the southeastern Alberta city of Medicine Hat and the nearby farms and ranches where Progressive Conservative campaigns have long been little more than a formality, with turnout only around 30 per cent and PC victory assured.
Those times are gone.
Former premier Ed Stelmach's government dragged its heels in responding to flooding here in 2010. Outcry over new provincial land-use laws took hold, the PC cabinet gave itself a raise during the recession, and one of the two local MLAs, Len Mitzel, was among those to collect $1,000 a month from a now-notorious committee that didn't meet for more than three years. The other, Rob Renner, lost his cabinet seat last year and won't run again.
All this helped give the right-wing Wildrose Party a foothold, from which it has grown – opening a 13-point lead on the PCs among decided voters, according to a CTV poll released Tuesday. That is comfortably in majority territory – an outcome that would end four decades of Tory rule at a time when the fast-growing, energy-rich province has emerged as a leader in Confederation. And southern Alberta, particularly rural ridings, now forms the heart of Wildrose support.
But on Tuesday, here was PC Leader Alison Redford, spending Day 9 of her campaign in Medicine Hat with Mr. Mitzel, whose riding is in the surrounding rural area, and first-time PC candidate Darren Hirsch, whose riding is in the city of about 60,000 people. Ms. Redford then went to Taber to a rally for a new candidate there – the outgoing MLA also sat on the no-work committee.
It's either stubborn or ambitious, but the PC Leader continues to chase all 87 ridings, even if it means campaigning in Wildrose's backyard.
"I don't see Medicine Hat as being any different than any other part of the province," Ms. Redford said when asked why she was there. "As leader of the PC party, as premier of the province, I'm going to make sure that I'm travelling the entire province talking about the issues that matter to Albertans."
Ms. Redford always planned to campaign on her budget, passed last month, and did so Tuesday in Medicine Hat, emphasizing: a new overpass, highway repaving, a $200-million hospital expansion, a new school and 90 new "affordable supported living spaces" in the city. In short, she was telling voters her party has already delivered.
"It is not an idea, it is not a pie-in-the-sky thought, it is not something that we stand in front of a podium and say because it's an election – we put a plan in place, we stood by that plan, we passed that budget and we're going to talk to Albertans about what that means for their future," Ms. Redford said.
Medicine Hat is a bellwether riding for many reasons – it's rural (with little Liberal or New Democrat support, the PC-Wildrose battle is most acute here) and it's home to many seniors, a demographic with high voter turnout who polls show prefer Wildrose. Ms. Redford and Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith have different visions for seniors, with the former preferring to spend on health care and the latter preferring tax-free energy rebates that will put money in seniors' pockets.
"Whether it's property taxes or power bills, the Alberta Energy Dividend will help seniors make ends meet and make life more affordable for them," Ms. Smith said in a statement Tuesday, when she was in Leduc for a campaign event.
Wildrose would slow and cap spending growth, defer infrastructure projects, save half of all surpluses and send another 20 per cent of surpluses to a fund to pay energy dividends to Albertans. The energy dividend pledge, made Tuesday, dominated the news cycle with mixed reviews from economists and columnists.
The Wildrose candidates around and within Medicine Hat are Drew Barnes, a real-estate agent, and Blake Pedersen, a small-business owner. "You know, [the support]is definitely there," Mr. Pedersen said Tuesday. "I'm certainly not going to make a prediction, but doing the door-knocking it's definitely positive."
His opponent, Mr. Hirsch, said the Wildrose plan to defer infrastructure spending will hurt Medicine Hat, sometimes called the "forgotten corner" of Alberta. "It's PC country, actually," Mr. Hirsch insisted.
Ms. Redford is playing "survival politics" and has to campaign in every riding in a race that continues to shift quickly, said David Taras, a political analyst and professor at Calgary's Mount Royal University. "I think you have to go everywhere," he said. "I think the situation is very much in flux. I think this is a moving target, I think the ballot question is about to change – just as the [Progressive]Conservatives can't take anything for granted, I think Wildrose can't take anything for granted. So, if you're Redford, you have to be everywhere."
She stopped at a Medicine Hat food court to speak to PC supporters, most of them elderly. Many wore Redford buttons, but at a nearby table sat Harley Lehr, 75, who lives in Mr. Mitzel's riding. He'll be voting Wildrose, saying it's time for a change.
"Oh, absolutely," Mr. Lehr said. "And again I don't blame Alison. From what I've seen of her, she's a nice lady – but, oh God, does she realize what she's got herself into?"
Sizing up the Alberta campaign
43 per cent
portion of decided voters that plan to back Wildrose
30 per cent
portion that will back the PCs
56 per cent
voters with a favourable view of Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith
48 per cent
voters with a favourable view of PC Leader Alison Redford
18 per cent
Wildrose lead over the PCs in Calgary
1 per cent
Wildrose lead over the PCs in Edmonton
48 per cent
who think PCs shouldn't be re-elected
23 per cent
who think PCs should be re-elected
3 per cent
margin of error
Source: ThinkHQ poll, conducted April 2 and 3 for CTV