The Alberta Progressive Conservatives lost a precious piece of political real estate Tuesday night: former premier Ralph Klein's riding, a seat the dynasty has held since it took office in 1971.
"I take full responsibility," said Tory candidate Brian Heninger after he tearfully conceded defeat in the by-election for Calgary-Elbow. Liberal candidate Craig Cheffins, a political neophyte, defeated him by 784 votes.
The loss of Calgary-Elbow is considered both a significant symbolic and political blow to the venerable right-wing party, which selected Mr. Klein's successor, Ed Stelmach, a farmer turned politician, last December.
Liberal Leader Kevin Taft said while some may view the by-election result as a "protest vote" against Mr. Stelmach and his young government, he's convinced "it's a lot bigger than that."
"It's the opening up of Alberta politics to other options, which is the norm in every other province," he said.
While the Tories lost Calgary-Elbow, an affluent constituency in southwestern Calgary, the party easily held on to Drumheller-Stettler, a rural riding that was recently vacated by former finance minister and deputy premier Shirley McClellan. Tory candidate Jack Hayden, a Stelmach loyalist and local politician, bested his next closest competitor, Liberal candidate Tom Dooley, by 3,187 votes.
During the last provincial general election in 2004, the Liberals didn't even run a candidate in the riding because it seemed to be such a lost cause.
"Tonight marks the end of the Klein era. It's over," said Keith Brownsey, a political scientist at Calgary's Mount Royal College.
He said that in urban centres such as Calgary, Mr. Klein's absence will "put a lot of ridings in play" during the next general election. It isn't expected to be called until the spring of 2008 at the earliest.
Despite Alberta's booming economy, a poll recently found Tory support declining across the province, especially in Calgary. Many residents are concerned that Mr. Stelmach, who hails from rural northern Alberta, doesn't understand their needs. They point to his cabinet, which is light in Calgary representation and heavy in its rural ranks, and the recent budget, as proof the party has turned its back on the province's biggest city.
Around the province, people are complaining the Tories are spending too much without getting a handle on major economic-boom-related issues, such as skyrocketing rents and house prices. In recent weeks, the two by-elections were increasingly being viewed as a kind of referendum on Mr. Stelmach's six-month-old government. One Calgary newspaper columnist even jokingly referred to the races as an Ederendum.
During the campaign in Calgary-Elbow, Mr. Heninger went out of his way to distance himself from the Premier.
"Hardly anybody knows the Premier and I've had to convince a lot of undecided and unhappy Conservatives," the first-time candidate told the Calgary Sun.
A few days before Tuesday's vote, the Tory party began pulling out all the stops to keep the riding from falling into Liberal hands for the first time. Mr. Stelmach was dispatched to Calgary and $1.25-billion for a new hospital in south Calgary was reannounced. Mr. Heninger also received help from several senior Tory strategists and Jim Dinning, a failed Tory leadership hopeful.
However, one person who didn't hit the hustings for Mr. Heninger was Mr. Klein. "I'm out of politics," he told a reporter.
Even before the votes were counted, the Tories were contemplating what was happening to their storied and well-financed party.
Ken Chapman, an Edmonton-based Tory party veteran, wrote on his blog that win or lose, the Conservatives needed to learn lessons from the experience. "The key message is going to be it is time for a change," he wrote. "If the PCs don't change how they lead, plan and govern, the citizens will do it for them."
Before Tuesday night's vote, the Tories held 60 of the legislature's 83 seats. The Liberals were second with 15. The NDP had four and the Alliance had one. There was one Independent and two vacant seats.
Tuesday night in a statement, Mr. Stelmach congratulated Mr. Cheffins on winning Drumheller-Stettler and said while the result in Calgary-Elbow is disappointing, Mr. Heninger's hard work hadn't been for nothing.
"Calgarians have sent a message and I have heard that message clearly," Mr. Stelmach said. "I will redouble my efforts to communicate with and unite all Albertans so we can work together to reach our full potential in this great province.
"Let me assure you, mine is a government with a clear plan for dealing with the growth pressures in Calgary."
By Canadian Press
Final unofficial results from Tuesday's Alberta provincial by-election in the constituency of Calgary-Elbow:
77 of 77 polls reporting
Craig Cheffins (Liberal) 4,801 Brian Heninger (Progressive Conservative) 4,017 George Read (Alberta Greens) 611 Jane Greydanus (Alberta Alliance) 456 Al Brown (NDP) 348 Trevor Grover (Social Credit) 175 Jeff Willerton (Independent) 124
Final unofficial results from Tuesday's Alberta provincial by-election in the constituency of Drumheller-Stettler:
71 of 71 polls reporting
Jack Hayden (Progressive Conservative) 4,180 Tom Dooley (Liberal) 993 Larry Davidson (Social Credit) 849 John Rew (Independent) 519 Dave France (Alberta Alliance) 355 Jennifer Wigmore (Alberta Greens) 249 Richard Bough (NDP) 104