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UCP by-election wins in Alberta offer little cause for optimism to NDP

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UCP leader Jason Kenney

On Friday the 13th, after two by-elections the day before in central and northern Alberta, supporters of the province's NDP government awoke to a new reality that's pretty much the same as the old reality.

That is, rural Central Alberta is deeply Conservative country pretty well no matter what, and no matter how bad the Tory candidate may seem to horrified observers elsewhere, and the northern oilsands region leans strongly Conservative too, despite progressive glimmerings from time to time in Fort McMurray and the naive hope that the NDP's energy policies can win friends there.

In other words, the 82-per-cent showing by Devin Dreeshen in yesterday's by-election in Innisfail-Sylvan Lake should come as no surprise, despite the glaring flaws of the United Conservative Party candidate -- reported by Vice the day before the vote to have been seen campaigning enthusiastically for Donald Trump in the United States during the 2016 U.S. Presidential election.

Asked about it, Vice reported, Dreeshen fled to a toilet and was never seen by their reporter again.

This 11th hour revelation may have both small provincial and more significant federal implications, in the latter case because Dreeshen is the son of Conservative Red Deer-Mountain View MP Earl Dreeshen and Trump has turned out to be no friend of Canada. But as far as the region goes, the last-minute emergence of a photo of the younger Dreeshen in a red MAGA ball cap either was irrelevant or may actually have helped him, no matter what the American president has been saying and doing to Canadians lately.

The previous Wildrose MLA in the riding, Don MacIntyre, was not exactly stellar material, although no one on either side of the aisle expected the sexual assault charges that forced him from office in February. And the election of someone like the thirtysomething Dreeshen as MLA makes Kerry Towle, who won the riding for the Wildrose Party in 2012 and ran for the PCs in 2015, practically look like a liberal!

Meanwhile, in Fort McMurray-Conklin, the northern Alberta oilsands service depot, despite a friendly reception on local doorsteps and significant pockets of support for the local NDP candidate, conservative standard-bearer Laila Goodridge won by a 66-per-cent margin.

Goodridge, 30, a conservative activist well liked in Fort Mac, was running to replace Brian Jean, the former leader of the Wildrose Party. Jean left politics in disillusionment last year, after Jason Kenney was selected to lead the right-wing Frankenparty created from the ashes of the Wildrose and Progressive Conservative parties following the NDP victory in 2015.

While the by-election results do not change the balance of power in the House, since both seats were won by Wildrose members in the 2015 general election that brought the NDP to power, they make NDP talk of a good showing in Fort Mac sound like whistling past the graveyard and suggest the government's hardline strategy on pipelines is not likely to be more effective than emphasizing traditional NDP strengths.

Fort Mac-Conklin is not Calgary, I guess, but given the familiar failings of our first-past-the-post electoral system, I wouldn't advise betting the farm on some kind of NDP resurgence in the southern Alberta oilpatch administrative capital next year any more than in Fort Mac this week.

As irritating as UCP triumphalism is to people who generally support the Notley Government's policies in the wake of yesterday's easy victories, there is no evidence yet it's not justified.

I expect, as a result of the by-election results yesterday, Kenney will double down on his strategy of appealing to the worst instincts of the UCP base without trying to woo middle-ground voters as the PCs of yore used to do, and that Notley's government will double down on its strategy of taking a hard line on the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion.

The combined impact of these two approaches may turn out to please hardline pipeline foes in British Columbia and the federal NDP, because they recognize Kenney makes a better boogeyman for their core constituencies than does Notley.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Image: Flickr/Daveberta

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