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Changing ridings, and new races, in rural Alberta

Children are dropped off by a school bus in the rural town of Mossleigh, AB on April 19, 2012. The town is in the provincial riding of Little Bow, where John Kolk, PC party and Ian Donovan, Wildrose party are running.

John Lehmann/Globe and Mail

Outside of the major cities, Alberta's elections are typically a coronation. Turnout is often low in rural Alberta because it's presumed the Progressive Conservatives will win by a landslide. And they do.

However, the runaway poll strength of Wildrose in rural ridings means the PCs are seen as the underdogs in this election campaign, and small places where fewer than 10,000 people will vote could be the pillars of a Wildrose majority. In the last election, more than a dozen ridings fit that bill.

And they hardly come smaller than Edson, an industrial town of 8,000 two hours west of Edmonton. It's one of four towns that make up West Yellowhead, one of Alberta's most sparsely populated ridings.

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The previous turnout here was 37 per cent, and just 4,200 people cast a vote for the PCs. It was enough for a landslide. Now, there's a horse race.

"We haven't had this much excitement in an election since 1993," Edson Mayor Greg Pasychny says, referring to the time the PCs faced a serious challenge. "You know, you're out there, talking to people, you get into discussions and arguments. I think it's exciting, and I think it's democracy at its best."

Polls have a hard time capturing such ridings, because issues vary wildly from one to another (and tend to by hyper-local), they have low populations, and incumbents tend to have strong personal ties.

Edson is a resource town, its boom-and-bust economy driven by oil and gas development, forestry and coal mining. Long-time residents are on a first-name basis (Helen, the waitress, and Todd, the locksmith) and the PC incumbent is well-known. It doesn't appear to be a lock for Wildrose. The leader of the upstart Alberta Party is also running here, but most view it as a two-horse race.

"Wildrose, all the way," says Neal Norris, 47, a pipe fitter. "I've always voted PC, but not this time." Others along Edson's main drag on Thursday say they'll back the PCs because they like the party, because they know the incumbent, or to stop the Wildrose.

"I don't like the Wildrose," says Laverne Pellemare, 66, a retired waitress whose number one issue is health care. She's backing the PCs, although her heart is with the NDP. "If they had a chance, I might have done it," she says.

Rural politics has changed in 20 years in Alberta. The ridings used to have far fewer people than city ridings, but Alberta's electoral map has been redrawn several times, including since the last election, to level the playing field.

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The effect of this is that Wildrose, with all its rural strength, won't have the advantage the Tories did in 1993. In that race, the Liberals were a city-first party that got 40 per cent of the vote and 32 seats. The PCs were rural-first, and won 44 per cent of the votes but 51 seats. (Edson, at the time, swung Liberal for one term.) This time, 43 of 87 total seats lie outside Edmonton and Calgary. About 30 would be considered rural, and Wildrose is stronger in some than others. In Camrose, Alta., Wildrose leader Danielle Smith spoke this week to a hall packed with people.

"You know, it's the winds of change are blowing in Alberta," supporter Joe Furber said outside the hall, adding rural voters began getting frustrated when the PCs started running deficits five years ago. "I believe that's what sparked it, no question about it ... everyone in Alberta has a reason to dislike this government, that's what it comes down to."

Back on the streets of Edson, however, PC support hasn't collapsed entirely. Many still plan on voting for them on April 23, including the mayor, in a race that's competitive for the first time in two decades, and one that's tough to predict.

"It used to be a coronation," Edson pharmacist Harold Switzer says. "Now they're working for it."

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