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Rancher Hamish Kerfoot at his family's ranch near Cocohrane, Alta., Monday, April 23, 2012.

Jeff McIntosh/The Globe and Mail/Jeff McIntosh/The Globe and Mail

Hamish Kerfoot knew before he'd finished marking the X on his ballot that his candidate in Monday's Alberta election wouldn't win.

"I've yet to vote for a party that won an election around here or came anywhere close," says the fourth-generation cattle rancher.

As he drove to his polling station in the Airdrie riding, where Progressive Conservative-turned-Wildrose MLA Rob Anderson appeared to be guaranteed an easy victory, Mr. Kerfoot had every intention of voting NDP, as he has in every provincial election since he turned 18.

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"I'm a land-owning socialist or a left-leaning libertarian," says the 54-year-old owner of Providence Ranch, about 15 kilometres northwest of Cochrane. "In many ways, I'm not even sure what I am."

It's a question many Albertans asked themselves as they voted in the first provincial election in recent memory in which a Progressive Conservative majority wasn't guaranteed. And while the much-hyped fight on the right appears to have fizzled, voters who didn't fall comfortably on the far right of the political spectrum found themselves in unknown territory. No longer those left behind in a provincial election, they finally had a choice to make.

"I've had the luxury my entire life of voting for whoever I damn well pleased and I don't have to suffer the consequences because my guy never gets in," Mr. Kerfoot said.

Pulling up to the polling station, he was still trying to make peace with a Wildrose majority that he believed was going to turn Alberta into "the Albania of North America."

Pencil in hand, ready to back yet another hopeless NDP candidate, this rancher, who confounds expectations about what rural Albertans are supposed to be like, made a surprising decision. He voted PC.

"I just hope that I've done something that will turn out to have made sense," Mr. Kerfoot said.

It's a dramatic election's most surprising turn, Alberta voters had an opportunity to break free of PC pen, but headed off in unexpected directions. Consider Mr. Kerfoot, the land-owning socialist who inexplicably voted for the status quo.

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Based on the signs on his neighbours' hay bales, the Wildrose Party's strong and free brand would be their antidote to the PCs betrayal of landowners and fiscal mismanagement.

But don't mistake them for the stereotypical simple rural folk whose votes have traditionally kept right-of-centre parties in power. According to Mr. Kerfoot, they've always voted conservative because they had a big vision for Canada, not because they were hiding out with their stills in the hills.

"An awful lot of my neighbours have forgotten that, going on about how they should have been born 100 years ago when things were simpler and we all rode horses everywhere," Mr. Kerfoot says. "Well, we're going to have a government that takes us back to those times – but we get to keep our cell phones."

And yet, as much as he'd like to teach the PCs a sharp lesson, Mr. Kerfoot wasn't comfortable with the neo-liberal or social conservative aspects of the far right.

"It would be a step backwards, not to the good old days, but to the bad old days," he says, citing friends and family who are gay.

Then there was the issue of the Wildrose candidate in his riding. The cowboy honour code, which had been bred in Mr. Kerfoot's bones, made voting for Mr. Anderson, who he dismisses as a "floor-crossing SOB," impossible.

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Voting PC was, for Mr. Kerfoot, the only way to stop a Wildrose majority.

"I didn't think it would do any harm except to me," he says.

In an interesting twist, he'd bought a PC membership last fall and had voted for Alison Redford in the leadership race, lending some truth to the Wildrose claim that she's a shadow liberal.

"It took a threat from the right to revive democracy in this province," says Zinc Research pollster Brian Singh, a strategist on the Naheed Nenshi's mayoralty campaign which successfully united social progressives and fiscal conservatives. Instead of a dramatic change, it's going to be incremental change from within. Federally, and now provincially in Alberta, it's the 40 per cent of hardcore conservative voters who continue to call the shots.

"Most people are complex, in that they wear many hats at once," Mr. Singh says. "They wear more hats than conservatives, but the conservatives are more likely to tie their hats to their moral code."

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