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Danielle Smith makes a comment as Todd Loewen and Rajan Sawhney listen during the United Conservative Party of Alberta leadership candidate's debate in Medicine Hat, Alta., on July 27.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

With the United Conservative Party scheduled to anoint a new leader Thursday, candidates to replace Jason Kenney are spending the dying days of the campaign scouring membership lists to find last-minute pockets of support while quietly acknowledging Danielle Smith appears likely to win the race.

The UCP distributed roughly 124,000 ballots to members at the beginning of September and multiple campaigns calculated there were roughly 50,000 to 60,000 ballots outstanding as of last week, based on information provided to them by the party.

But scrounging up potential support so late in the race is labour-intensive: Campaigns established drop-off locations across the province over the weekend so they could deliver the votes to the party’s auditor by the Monday deadline. (Canada Post was closed last Friday for the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.) Five in-person voting stations will also be open Thursday.

While it is possible those efforts could benefit one of the other front-runners in the party’s ranked balloting system, political insiders and observers largely expect Ms. Smith to win. The former leader of the Wildrose Party, who spent years as a private talk-radio host before attempting a political comeback, campaigned to the right of the outgoing Mr. Kenney, and her main competitors appeared to follow.

Discussions of education policy or health care reform were drowned out by grievance politics tied to the COVID-19 pandemic and anger toward the federal government. The ranked-ballot system meant candidates were reluctant to mount sustained attacks on each other because they did not want to alienate members who preferred one of their competitors.

Members of the federal Conservative Party selected Pierre Poilievre as their new leader last month. That vote, said Karamveer Lalh, who has worked for the UCP and its national counterpart, injected excitement and hope into the Tories. But in comparison to Mr. Poilievre’s victory, Mr. Lalh expects a small bump in support and morale after UCP members select a new head this week.

“I think it will be muted, but at least folks are like: Okay, well, that piece of drama is done with. Let’s move on now,” Mr. Lalh said. “We’ve gone through some chop, we’re still mostly dry, so now let’s figure out how we’re going to beat the NDP in six months.”

Opinion: Albertans could some day miss Jason Kenney, even if his current approval numbers spell a different story

Matthew Altheim, Ms. Smith’s campaign manager, said volunteers are spending the final days of the campaign on the phone, trying to get out the vote. The Smith campaign does not assume it has victory in hand, Mr. Altheim said, noting there are still members “on the fence.”

Alberta’s next general election is scheduled for May, 2023, although the premier has some discretion around timing. Ms. Smith is the only UCP leadership candidate without a seat in the legislature and would also face pressure to seek a seat in a by-election rather than wait as long as seven months for a provincewide election.

Mr. Kenney founded the UCP in 2017 alongside Brian Jean, who led the Wildrose Party when it merged with the Progressive Conservatives. Mr. Jean lost the inaugural UCP leadership convention to Mr. Kenney, and more recently pushed for the Premier to step down. Mr. Jean is now among the seven candidates vying to replace him.

Mr. Kenney did not endorse any of the candidates, but argued passionately against Ms. Smith’s proposed sovereignty act, which she said would allow Alberta to ignore federal laws when provincial politicians believe their counterparts in Ottawa have overstepped their jurisdiction. His opposition, along with doubts from others in caucus, indicates the UCP’s new leader will have to address the party’s internal division.

Mr. Altheim believes the party’s wounds can heal with Ms. Smith at the helm. “I think caucus is ready,” he said.

Martin Heavy Head Jr., a community advocate and consultant in Lethbridge, wants the new UCP leader – as well as those leading other parties – to drop the “political potshots” and take a more mature approach to their jobs.

“I would like whoever is in power to take a more realistic view about themselves and the people that they serve, rather than there being this political polarization and constant arguing,” the Blood Tribe member said. “They’ve dumbed themselves down, they’ve dumbed the institution [of the legislature] down to Twitter fights.”