By Collin Gallant
Southern Alberta Newspapers
It was all over but the waiting at UCP headquarters in Medicine Hat by 10 p.m. as local candidates were projected to secure seats in Monday’s general elections, though results in the expectedly tight contest across Alberta trickled in late into the night.
Party leader and Brooks-Medicine Hat candidate Danielle Smith addressed the gathering of about five dozen campaign workers at the Whisky District restaurant by telephone shortly after polls closed, thanking them for their work but still awaiting vote counts.
“It’s looking good and I’m so grateful to all of you … I’m looking forward to coming down and making sure we can spend some good time with you all,” she said.
“We’re biting our nails as much as I expect the rest of you are.”
Huge whoops went up at 9:30 when television networks called the Brooks-Medicine Hat riding for Smith, the six-month leader of the United Conservatives who trailed in the polls for much of 2022 but drew ahead according to many polls in the last weeks of the four-week election.
That left many of the observers in Medicine Hat watching screens for results, especially from Calgary, where it was predicted the election and seat totals to form government would be decided.
Smith secured the riding with 66.5 per cent of the vote, while her closest challenger, Gwendoline Dirk of the New Democrats took 27.5 per cent. Alberta Party Leader Barry Morishita trailed with 6.2 per cent.
At the same time, the party’s candidate in Cypress-Medicine Hat, Justin Wright secured the riding with 61.9 per cent over the NDP’s Cathy Hogg with 35.3 per cent.
“It’s been an absolutely humbling and amazing experience,” said Wright, a first time provincial candidate who only won the nomination in March, six weeks before the May 1 election kickoff.
“We’ve seen some great results … it was a large learning curve at the beginning, but we simplified that into building relationships and listening to the grass roots.”
Wright, 38, a business owner who operates food trucks as well as contracted spaces in city rec facilities, had entered politics in the 2021 municipal election but finished out of the top-eight finishers and failed to secure a seat.
Hogg, a rancher and long-serving school board trustee, had entered the race in February, winning a three-way contested nomination to run for the NDP in the traditionally conservative riding.
They were joined in the race by Alberta independence candidate Cody Ray Both and Matt Orr, a Fort Macleod-area farmer under the Wildrose Loyalty banner.
Drew Barnes had represented the riding in three terms starting in 2012, but announced on first day of the election he would not seek re-election.
As UCP banner in 2019, Drew Barnes won the riding with about two-thirds of the vote.
That was the first under new boundary changes that brought a large number of Medicine Hatters living in the city’s south to the previously rural-heavy riding.
Alan Rose, the president of the party’s Cypress-Medicine Hat constituency association, noted the lack of challenge on the right from either Barnes, or substantial campaigns from third parties.
“We know our community and we think the base is still here and united,” he said, noting the party’s fortunes in the rest of the province.
“It comes down to motivation, and who gets their supporters to go to the polls.”
Smith first ran in the riding in a byelection just last November with 55 per cent of the vote over the same two opponents; Morishita, a former mayor of Brooks, and Dirk, a retired teacher and college instructor.
Smith and the UCP campaigned hard across the province on the economic prospects for the province, claiming a return to pre-2019 NDP policies would severely hamper growth. The party promised to lower rates in the lowest tax bracket, tackle the opioid crisis and related crime with new measures and to generally overhaul the health system.
Critics and the NDP said that would lead to privatization, questioned her stance on creating a provincial police force and pulling out of the Canada Pension Plan – issues left out of the UCP platform.
Smith was only elected the MLA for the north end of Medicine Hat seven months ago, winning a byelection after taking hold of the party leadership last fall from outgoing leader Jason Kenney.
Some pundits wondered about the soundness of her strategy to solidify support in the province’s rural ridings first, then battling for seats in vote-rich Calgary while leaving the capital city, Edmonton, to the NDP.
Medicine Hat elected NDP candidate Bob Wanner in 2015 in old boundary lines and a race that conservatives complained featured a split vote on the right.
After the creation of the United Conservative Party in the 2019 vote, both area ridings returned UCP candidates with well-above 50 per cent majority support.