Faced with stark visions for Alberta at a critical juncture in its history, voters made a clear choice Monday, embracing Alison Redford's progressive view for the province.
What was billed as one of the most hotly contested elections in recent memory instead turned into a success for Ms. Redford, whose majority victory cemented the country's longest-running political dynasty.
Although the upstart Wildrose Party will form the official opposition, it fell short of expectations: both its own, and those of pollsters, most of whom were forecasting a Wildrose win.
Instead, amid higher turnout, the province's urban voters overwhelmingly picked Ms. Redford's Progressive Conservatives. The PCs nearly swept Calgary, won Edmonton and held their ground in rural ridings that had presumed to be Wildrose's to lose.
"Every Albertan knew that this election was about choice. A choice to put up walls or to build bridges. A choice about Alberta's future," Ms. Redford said in her victory speech. "Tonight, Alberta chose to build bridges."
The PCs were on pace for about 60 of the province's 87 seats, with 44-per-cent popular support – a far cry from what polls suggested. Wildrose was set to win 19 seats with 35-per-cent support. It amounted to a clear centrist mandate for Ms. Redford at a time when Alberta's role in Canada is as prominent as ever. She has pledged to be a conciliatory force in Confederation, pursuing a Canadian Energy Strategy nationally while investing in education and health care at home.
Ms. Redford arrived at her party's headquarters just after 10 p.m. local time in downtown Calgary, with U2's Beautiful Day blaring on the speakers. She thanked party supporters and said Albertans made a clear decision.
"It's exciting for all of us," she said.
She also reached out to the conservative wing of her party, one that has dwindled since she became leader last fall. Even her party's conservative stalwart, energy minister Ted Morton, lost his seat in Monday's vote.
"The PC party has a proud history of being progressive – and conservative," she said. "We will honour both of those traditions. We are champions of Alberta. We are champions of Canada. "
Some observers suggested that urban voters, in particular, may have been turned off by Wildrose's small-c conservative platform amid a string of controversies late in a campaign – two Wildrose candidates who made anti-gay and racially charged statements didn't win election. Ms. Redford had instead pushed to boost Alberta's role in Canada with a progressive vision.
Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith was gracious in defeat, saying her party came a long way from four years ago – when it didn't run a full slate and didn't see a single candidate elected.
"Change might take a little longer than we thought," Ms. Smith told a cheering crowd in High River, where she won her own seat Monday. "We knew when we started this project we had our work cut out for us, but the growth of Wildrose has been nothing short of remarkable.
"Am I surprised? Yeah. Am I disappointed? Yeah. Am I discouraged? Not a chance."
She said voters "decided that Wildrose might need some time" and added she looked forward to her time as leader of the Official Opposition.
"I'm sorry it didn't end the way we'd all dreamed, but we're not done yet," Ms. Smith said.
The results have entrenched the PCs as the leading centrist party in the province, one with a distinctly urban power base. Wildrose, meanwhile, will emerge as the voice of the province's small-c conservatives.
About one in five voters were undecided in the campaign's final week, and appear to have made a clear choice.
PC party president Bill Smith (no relation to the Wildrose leader) said the results were a "relief," and a surprise.
"It's a much better number I think than we could have cautiously hoped for," he said, adding voters "bought into Alison's – Premier Redford's – vision for Alberta and Alberta's place in Canada and the world."
He believes undecided voters made the difference.
"I have to wonder if they walked in the polling station and went: 'You know, my life is good, and the PCs have played a big part in that in government over the years'," Mr. Smith said.
Observers were surprised at the results.
David Taras, a political analyst and professor from Calgary's Mount Royal University, said in a television interview the results were "a breathtaking shock."
Ms. Redford had faced pressure within her party to call the election sooner – either after winning the party leadership last fall or after tabling her budget in February. She elected to wait until the budget was passed – and Wildrose's fortunes soared. By the first day of the campaign, Wildrose had caught up in the polls, and quickly became the front-runner, opening a 10-point lead that put the 41-year PC dynasty in peril.
A series of PC controversies helped Wildrose's cause, including an infamous government committee that hadn't met for three years but paid its members $1,000 a month; a comment by a government staffer questioning why Ms. Smith didn't have children (leading Ms. Smith to reveal she'd sought fertility treatments, which were unsuccessful); and the PCs' sluggish start to the campaign.
The campaign began to turn, however, with a series of Wildrose gaffes in the past week, including the candidates' comments and Ms. Smith's statement that the "science isn't settled" on climate change.
Wildrose campaign chair Cliff Fryers said the comments of candidates Allan Hunsperger (who wrote a blog saying homosexuals would spend eternity in a "lake of fire") and Ron Leech (who said he had an advantage over Sikh and Muslim candidates because he's white) did hurt the Wildrose team. Neither was elected Monday.
"It would be misleading everybody to say they did not have an impact. The question is the degree," he said, saying the party relied on Ms. Smith (who declined to condemn the views, saying they were personal but didn't reflect party policy) to respond.
"But I think most people have taken a look at Danielle Smith and said: 'No, she's not that way'," Mr. Fryers said.
Ms. Redford said Alberta – which has seen its population soar over the last decade's boom – is a different province, one that needs to change the way it operates. She had run for the PC leadership as a candidate of change, one who cleared out much of her party's old guard.
"Today, Alberta, you spoke and you spoke loudly. And I want you to know that I heard you. Since becoming your Premier, I've talked often about how Alberta has changed and that's it time for politics and government to catch up," Ms. Redford said. "This campaign has driven that point home for me. Albertans want change."
With a report from Carrie Tait in High River, Alta.