The federal Conservatives were served with a wake-up call on Monday night in Calgary, where one of the government's safest seats was nearly taken down by a huge swath of by-election voters who wanted change, but failed to mobilize their support behind a single opposition candidate.
Instead, Tory candidate Joan Crockatt, a former editor with the Calgary Herald turned television pundit, walked away with Calgary Centre with just 36.9 per cent support, her nearest competitor – a Liberal – was just 4.2 percentage points behind.
While Ms. Crockatt, viewed as a polarizing figure for her perceived hard-right wing views and support of the provincial Wildrose Party, drew 10,201 votes, the three other main opposition parties collected 17,187 ballots.
Ms. Crockatt denied that vote-splitting is sending her to Ottawa.
"It was a nail-biting evening," she told reporters after delivering her victory speech to a downtown bar packed with supporters, "But I'm a new candidate. I'm not an incumbent, and by-elections are always challenging for a majority government."
Over the past month, Liberals from across the country, including former prime minister Paul Martin, interim federal leader Bob Rae and leadership hopefuls Justin Trudeau and Martha Hall Findlay, flocked here in a bid to help local candidate Harvey Locke attempt to beat a curse that hasn't seen Calgary elect a Grit federally since 1968.
Liberal ambitious were further fuelled when Calgary's popular Mayor Naheed Nenshi criticized Ms. Crockatt for not participating in many public debates, and as a split was emerging within the conservative movement between the provincial Wildrose Party wing and the red Tory contingent.
However, near the end of the campaign, Mr. Locke, a lawyer and environmentalist, was hit by a double-whammy. First, Liberal energy critic David McGuinty urged Conservative politicians in Ottawa to "go back to Alberta" and described them as cheerleaders for the energy industry. Then, two-year-old comments surfaced that were made by Mr. Trudeau, which were critical of the dominance of Alberta politicians in Canada and praised the qualities of past prime ministers from Quebec. Mr. McGuinty apologized and resigned his critic's portfolio, while Mr. Trudeau was also contrite and offered clarification.
As the tight race swung between Ms. Crockatt and Mr. Locke most of the night, in the end just 1,167 votes separated the pair. Mr. Locke attracted 32.7 per cent of the popular vote. Observers warned – and polls suggested – that as voters drifted among a collection of so-called progressive candidates, Ms. Crockatt would eke out a narrow victory.
Tory MP Lee Richardson, who stepped down last spring to take a job in Alberta Premier Alison Redford's office, won the 2011 federal election by a comfortable margin with almost 58 per cent of the vote, leaving the Liberals a distant second with 18 per cent.
Since the riding was established in 1968, it has only been occupied by a string of conservative candidates regardless of party banner.
Mr. Locke, who stopped by the Tory festivities to offer Ms. Crockatt his congratulations, didn't blame the Liberal gaffes for denying him the chance to make history.
"I think I lost all on my own," he said, "It was my race to lose and I lost."
Mr. Locke suggested that the results show that the Liberal brand isn't dead in Alberta and he didn't rule out making another run for office.
"I think political scientists should have a good time reading the entrails of this particular election," Mr. Locke added.
When informal efforts failed to get the three main parties on the left to field a single candidate against the Tories, a fledgling online campaign called www.1calgarycentre.com stepped in to track voter preferences and point toward the best progressive candidate.
Ultimately, that support went to author Chris Turner of the Green Party, who would attract 25.6 per cent support. Dan Meades of the NDP, the country's Official Opposition, a distant fourth with just 3.8 per cent of the vote.
Harold Jansen, a political scientist with the University of Lethbridge, said he wasn't surprised by the result, but he was struck by "the strong Green showing and anemic NDP showing."
"Clearly, Alberta didn't get the memo about Canada's apparent shift to a two-party – CPC-NDP – system," Prof. Jansen said.
Mr. Turner said the outcome shows the diversity of Calgary, but also that the majority of voters are asking for "new perspectives and real change."
"Calgary can no longer be taken for granted by the Conservative government," he said.
Despite a buzz of excitement in the downtown riding, which is home to both the city's affluent establishment as well as new, struggling Canadians, voter turnout was a dismal 29.4 per cent.
Duane Bratt, a political scientist at Mount Royal University in Calgary, said the low turnout, the vote split, negative comments by high-profile Liberals and the dominance of the Conservative brand in Alberta, were all factors that propelled Ms. Crockatt to victory.
"CPC almost blew it," he said.
Ms. Crockatt didn't see it that way. She described Conservative support in Calgary Centre as "strong and growing" and her victory as an endorsement of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's policies.
"Thanks for putting your faith in me, and our Conservative government, that we'll continue to steer our economy and our country in the right direction," she said.