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Alberta First by-election since NDP victory in Alberta goes to Wildrose party

Wildrose candidate Presad Panda, left, celebrates his victory with Wildrose leader Brian Jean, right, in the Calgary Foothills byelection in Calgary, Alta., on Thursday, September 3, 2015.

Jeff McIntosh/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Moments after messing up the NDP's momentum with a provincial by-election win in Calgary on Thursday night, the Opposition Wildrose encouraged its members to readjust their sights to the federal vote and a victory for Conservative Leader Stephen Harper.

Wildrose Leader Brian Jean, a former Conservative MP under Harper, told party supporters to take a short breather before getting back to the campaign grind.

"Many of us, most of us — I'm hoping all of us — will continue to campaign for Stephen Harper's Conservative government," he said. "That is the very best option for Canada."

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The rowdy Wildrose crowd chanted, "Harper! Harper! Harper!"

The Calgary-Foothills byelection provided the first stumble in the NDP's unprecedented climb to power, and took place in a constituency that had been held by the Conservatives since 1971.

With all 66 polls reporting, Wildrose candidate Prasad Panda won with 38 per cent of the vote compared to 26 per cent for NDP candidate Bob Hawkesworth, a former MLA and Calgary city councillor.

Tory candidate Blair Houston, a restaurant owner, was third with 22 per cent of the vote.

Less than 90 minutes after polls closed, the NDP had issued a concession through a news release from Alberta Finance Minister Joe Ceci congratulating Panda on the victory.

"We knew that it would be an uphill battle given the history of the riding and the economic challenges we face because of the collapse in oil prices," said Ceci.

"We hear the concerns about oil prices loud and clear. And we are working hard to release an economic recovery plan in the coming weeks."

Hawkesworth urged his supporters to put things into perspective.

"In a by-election less than a year ago, we polled less than 5 per cent in Calgary Foothills. So before we say it's too bad about tonight, at least we were contenders and we came close."

Panda told his raucous supporters he wanted to keep the evening celebratory and didn't want to talk policy, but he did have one message for the NDP government.

"Calgary is worried about jobs and the premier needs to understand that," he said. "People are so worried about the NDP's ideology. They didn't want to experiment with this risky agenda."

The by-election in Calgary-Foothills was called after former Tory premier Jim Prentice won the riding on election night in May only to resign from politics the same night when his party was handed their walking papers by Premier Rachel Notley's NDP.

Some pollsters, including Janet Brown of Calgary, expected it to be a hotly contested race between the NDP and the Wildrose.

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She suggested the NDP was eager to win to prove their general election victory wasn't a fluke, while the Wildrose needed to prove it could win an urban riding.

Notley rejected the premise, saying the outcome of the by-election was not a "litmus test" for her government, which has a comfortable 53-seat majority in the 87-seat legislature.

Nevertheless, she paid multiple visits to the constituency during the month-long campaign.

The race was nasty at times.

The Wildrose, which doesn't hold a seat in Edmonton or Calgary, accused the NDP of trying to scare voters by suggesting the Wildrose backs sweeping and punishing civil service job cuts.

The NDP fired back at the Wildrose for a campaign pamphlet, written in Cantonese, that compared the government to communists. The Wildrose said it meant to say socialists and that was lost in translation.

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It was the third time in a little over 10 months that Calgary-Foothills voters had gone to the ballot box.

In preparation for taking over the Alberta Conservatives after the resignation of former premier Alison Redford, Prentice had won the constituency in a by-election in October, 2014.

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