Along a quiet street in Pincher Creek there’s a spattering of houses with bright orange signs that contrast the surrounding sea of blue.
Juneva Green was running errands when her husband stepped the NDP banner into their lawn.
“When I came back and he’d gotten the sign up I said, ‘Gee, Jim, the neighbours are going to think we’re communists,” she said laughing.
The Greens live in Livingstone-Macleod — a riding the NDP hasn’t won since 1966 but that houses pockets of progressive voters.
The election has broadly been a neck-and-neck race. But the NDP aren’t competitive in much of rural Alberta.
The UCP is at 65 per cent support and the NDP at 31 per cent outside Edmonton and Calgary, per polling aggregator 338 Canada. Seat projections show them as serious challengers in only a handful of the 41 ridings outside the two major cities.
The UCP’s greatest concentrations of strength continue to be in those constituencies, of which they currently hold 39.
The fewer small city and rural seats the NDP wins, the harder its path to victory. If the NDP forms the next government, it’s poised to do so largely without rural representation.
Lately, it’s been lonely to vote progressive in small town Alberta or be a conservative supporter in NDP-held Edmonton. CBC News is featuring stories from both those groups of voters during this election.
“In the last election, we put up NDP signs on both sides of the house and realized we’re the only ones with signs,” said Sharron Toews, a resident of Nanton who has voted across the political spectrum.
Progressive voters in places like Nanton, Claresholm and the Crowsnest Pass would quietly vote for their parties in the past, but the support is more visible this time. It’s the first election in decades where Alberta has solidified into a competitive two-party system.
“We’ve been a conservative-reigned province for many years … I think maybe people are looking for more options.”
This year, orange dots a dozen lawns on Toews’s small street.
“The fact that we are in a two-party system where opposition to the conservatives has largely coalesced around the NDP, that’s a really big deal,” said Clark Banack, the director of the Alberta Centre for Sustainable Rural Communities at the University of Alberta.
He added that political cultures in small towns have shifted in the last 20 years as government dollars pool in cities and rural residents are confronted with the changing nature of living and livelihoods outside of urban centres.
“Is it going to flip 10 seats? No, I don’t think so. Are there going to be a few races that are far closer than we would have ever seen 10, 15, 20 years ago? Absolutely.”
Tory blue, all the way through
“Other” Alberta, as pollsters sometimes call the areas outside the two metropolises, hasn’t been reliable for the NDP. In 2019, the party had only 23 per cent of the 927,000 votes cast in “otherland.”
Livingstone-Macleod elected a UCP MLA in 2019 with more than 70 per cent of the vote to the NDP’s 21 per cent. It’s a stronghold of conservative support and home base for UCP Leader Danielle Smith (the constituency was also her first choice to get a seat in the legislature last fall).
Just under 50,000 people live in the riding, where people over 45 make up the majority. The riding is a patchwork of ranchers, farmers, health-care workers, energy sector employees, retirees and young families.
“People have this sense that rural Alberta is all one thing. People think it’s Tory blue all the way through,” said Kevin Van Tighem, the NDP candidate in Livingstone-Macleod.
“And a lot of people are concerned about the same things they’re worried about everywhere else in the province.”
He’s facing a well-known rookie UCP challenger, Chelsae Petrovic. Each has encountered controversy: Petrovic proactively apologized for yet-to-be-released social media posts and Van Tighem had to clarify a comparison he made between the oil and gas sector’s impact on the environment and slavery.
Those 41 seats also include places like Red Deer and Lethbridge, which are more of a toss up. And the issues across the province are consistent: Health care and the cost of living are just as much of a preoccupation outside the cities as they are in them.
“The small scale family farm has really withered away thanks to kind of broader economic shifts. Same with other industries that tended to be rural have been kind of corporatized to a degree,” Banack said.
“This has kind of created a bit of an opening for new forms of rural identity to kind of sprout out.”
In the Crowsnest Pass, longtime residents say the demographics have shifted in the last five years. Younger families have moved into communities like Bellevue and Blairmore. An uptick in mountain biking has brought people with environmental leanings to the region. A vibrant arts and tourism scene has emerged.
The NDP campaign is aiming for some gains outside the cities. Five rural seats would be the goal, flipping 10 would be the ceiling.
Don’t expect to see the majority of efforts focused in rural areas, a senior strategist said, but do expect the NDP to “take a few nibbles of their territory here and there.”
Van Tighem is trying to defy the odds and be one of the 10, using a perhaps counterintuitive strategy. He’s asking “light” blue conservatives to — just this once — put the UCP in the penalty box for four years and loan the NDP their vote.
“We’ve got a lot of the same beliefs except we drive on gravel roads, we’ve got longer driveways and we have far more grass to cut,” Karen Shaw said. She was raised in a conservative family, ranching in the northern half of Alberta. She’s now the NDP’s candidate in Morinville-St. Albert.
Shaw’s riding is a tighter race but still a bit of a toss up, polling aggregates say. The orange wave that swept the NDP to power in 2015 included a win in that region. No such luck four years later, in the 2019 election. She’s working to convince undecided voters the NDP should get another shot at government.
Orange is the new blue?
The UCP is working to convey the opposite.
“There is nothing conservative or moderate about the NDP or its leader,” Edmonton-South West candidate Kaycee Madu wrote.
The party notes Notley’s record on economic issues, and Smith has poked at her attempt to appeal to more voters.
“She wants to portray herself as some kind of progressive conservative. She’s even wearing blue these days, you may have noticed,” the UCP leader said.
Jean Pultz voted NDP for the first time in 2019, and while she may not be a lifetime convert to the centre-left of the spectrum, she says Alberta needs to give something different a try.
“I think people are fed up.”
Pultz says she’s taking a chance on the NDP again but is skeptical of the party’s ability to deliver on its promises.
“Are they going to carry through once they get in? I don’t know.”
That hesitation voters may have on both major parties is what the Alberta Party would like to capitalize on.
“There’s the true and true blue that are going to vote blue no matter what,” said Kevin Todd, the candidate in Livingstone-Macleod.
“And I want them to just go for better representation.”
Ridings like Banff-Kananaskis, the two Lethbridge seats and Edmonton’s more rural ‘doughnut’ constituencies are opportunities for the NDP, but the odds don’t favour them for most of these 41 otherlands.
That isn’t much of a deterrent for some of these progressive voters.
“Every vote counts, my vote is just as important as anyone else’s,” said Tahvo Laukkanen, an NDP supporter in Grand Prairie.
“It’s politics. We always have a chance.”