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United Conservative Party leader Danielle Smith, centre, speaks at a campaign launch rally in Calgary on April 29. Albertans go to the poles in a provincial election on May 29.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

From Alberta’s healthy budget surplus to a recovering unemployment rate, the fiscal facts should give United Conservative Party candidates a boost in Calgary in this month’s provincial election. But they appear to be dragged down by a prominent colleague: UCP Leader Danielle Smith.

Alberta’s largest city is the most coveted region in the May 29 election, and the UCP and NDP are in a dogfight over its 26 seats. Voters in Calgary, who tend to be fiscally conservative with a socially progressive streak, soured on the UCP during the pandemic, and Ms. Smith’s leadership has made them even more skeptical.

Political observers expect the UCP to lose significant ground in Calgary. But given the party’s stranglehold on rural constituencies, the NDP would need to nearly sweep the city to form government.

Samir Kayande is the NDP candidate in Calgary-Elbow, an affluent riding near the heart of the city. In August, Calgarians were firm in their conservative convictions when he knocked on doors, Mr. Kayande said. But in October, UCP members selected Ms. Smith to replace Jason Kenney as leader, and the conversation on the doorsteps has since changed.

“Today, the conversation is: ‘I’m conservative, but,’” Mr. Kayande said. “And that ‘but’ is all about Danielle Smith.”

The NDP is keen to paint Ms. Smith as unpredictable and too closely aligned with the UCP’s right flank, two factors that are unpopular with moderate conservatives who crave stability.

“The conversation is about Danielle Smith and the people who back her,” Mr. Kayande said.

Erika Barootes, a UCP operative, dismissed concerns that Ms. Smith is a liability in Calgary. The party, Ms. Barootes said, is trying to get Ms. Smith in front of as many undecided voters as possible, because the leader excels at winning over residents when she connects directly with them. The UCP argues Rachel Notley, the NDP Leader and former premier who ended a 43-year conservative hold on power in 2015, still infuriates some voters in Calgary.

The UCP won Calgary-Elbow in 2019, and its MLA vacated the seat last summer. Ms. Smith opted not to call a by-election in the centrist riding when she ran for her own seat in the legislature in November.

Ms. Barootes thinks the UCP’s rookie candidate can deliver the riding for the party, suggesting the Alberta Party could siphon votes away from the NDP. The UCP did not make the riding’s candidate, Chris Davis, available for an interview.

The outcome of the provincial election could be decided by just a few thousand electors, in select Calgary ridings, who opt to stay home or change their vote relative to the 2019 election.

“It is a very reasonable possibility that the party that wins the popular vote does not win the election,” Janet Brown, a pollster in the province, said. “We don’t know what’s going to happen, but we do know whatever happens, it is going to be a chaotic outcome.”

The province’s 87 constituencies are generally divided into three buckets: Calgary (26), Edmonton (20), and smaller urban and rural communities (41). In the 2019 election, the UCP won 63 seats, while the NDP claimed 24. The UCP won 23 in Calgary, one in Edmonton, and 39 in the rest of the province.

In this election, the NDP hopes to flip a few ridings that fall into the smaller urban and rural category, such as Lethbridge East and Banff-Kananaskis. But even if the NDP dominates Edmonton and eats into the UCP’s turf outside the big cities, it would still need a supermajority in Calgary to bump the UCP from power.

Ms. Brown said polls favourable to the NDP land within or near the margin of error. She noted the outcome of the 2019 election, when Jason Kenney led the UCP, demonstrated that the polls underestimated conservative support. The UCP won that election by 22 points, while she predicted a cushion of 18 points and other polls called for a margin of 10.

The UCP’s toughest battles in Calgary are downtown and to the north. The results of the 2019 election underscore how little has to change at the ballot box in order to swing seats.

For example, the UCP bettered the NDP in Calgary-Falconridge by 91 votes in that election, with the two also-ran parties capturing a combined 1,410 ballots in this northeast riding in 2019. In Calgary-Currie, the UCP won by 191 votes, with 3,063 people supporting alternatives to the dominant parties. The UCP won Calgary-Elbow in 2019, after the NDP and Alberta Party split the vote.

The UCP’s Jeremy Nixon is running for re-election in Calgary-Klein, which he won in 2019 after beating the NDP incumbent by about 1,700 votes. He said residents are feeling more optimistic compared with how “devastated” they felt after Ms. Notley’s four years in government. The unemployment rate in Calgary on April 1 was 6.4 per cent, compared with 7.3 per cent on the same date in 2019, for example.

The UCP wants to remind voters of the economic tumult that defined Ms. Notley’s term. Mr. Nixon also talks up how the UCP directed billions of dollars toward repaying debt, lowering the province’s interest payments.

When asked whether Ms. Smith takes the shine off the UCP’s strengths, Mr. Nixon said she was quick to support affordability measures and reindexed Alberta’s Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped program.

While Ms. Smith may be the reason why the election is so close in Calgary, the conservative brand remains strong in the city.

“There’s definitely a lot of buzz around Smith and how scary Smith is and how erratic Smith is,” said Ms. Brown, the pollster. “But that’s not the same thing as people warming up to the NDP.”

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