It was the fairytale-style ending no one predicted and a comeback, that leading up to the 2012 Alberta provincial election, no one anticipated.
The battle for the throne – as one can only describe more than 40 years of uninterrupted Tory governance in the province – was a heated one and every indication leading up to it was that the Progressive Conservatives were indeed going to try out the cushions lining the opposition benches.
But just as unprecedented a fact as the PCs not forming government in Alberta was the fact the main contender in the spring contest was not one of the typical provincial opposition parties, such as the Liberals or the NDP, but right wing upstart, the Wildrose Party.
Every poll and commentator during the weeks leading up to the day of the election predicted the fledgling Wildrose would form government and, in most cases, predictions gave the WRP a significant majority.
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The Wildrose found traction among Alberta voters running on a platform based on 'prudent spending' and social conservatism, which automatically distanced it from the Liberals, NDP, Greens and the Alberta Party and, more strategically important, on a platform that heavily targeted what they called the Tories’ tired, inefficient and morally questionable style of governance.
The PCs’ increasingly-inflated budgets and constantly looming alleged scandals that, were all used as ammunition by the Wildrose, who kept their campaign cross-hairs squarely on the governing party.
The strategy worked. Only being in Alberta’s political scene for a few years, and being the result of an amalgam between the Alliance Party and the Wildrose Party – a marriage that saw the creation of the Wildrose Alliance Party and eventually the Wildrose Party of Alberta – the young party leapfrogged over the traditional Liberals and NDs.
Going into the 2012 election, the Wildrose became the choice of undecided voters, as well as disenfranchised PCs, who felt strongly the Tories had strayed from their roots.
The election was made the more dynamic by the fact that for the first time in history, the two leading contenders were women.
Alison Redford, who has a long and illustrious history in politics and diplomacy but relatively short history in elected office quickly became the matriarch of the Alberta Conservatives and was quick to set the party in a more pragmatic course than the one set by her predecessors.
Redford's biggest foe, Danielle Smith, is even newer to elected office but had the political savvy to harness the strong anti-Tory sentiments running high in Alberta during the prelude to the election. While Redford came across as motherly, winning over women voters, Smith came across as attractive and dynamic, which allowed her to be militant in her anti-Tory message but non-belligerent in her delivery. The promise of ‘Dani Dollars’ – the cutting of a $300 to every man, woman and child in the province – didn’t hurt either.
The stage seemed set for the dethroning of the PCs and boosters and non-boosters alike seemed hypnotized by what looked like political history being made in a province that doesn’t make political history.
But the runaway locomotive that was the Widrose train started to go off the rails when many of the fears and concerns progressive voters raised about the new conservative entity started to materialize before the voters’ eyes.
The ‘scary’ neo-con label progressives had tried so hard to attach to the WRP started to get harder to peel off.
"I'll tell you exactly what I'm saying: This is the party of yesterday. This is the party of the middle-aged male who has lost control of the Progressive Conservatives because they have moved forward," said PC strategist Tom Olsen of the Wildrose prior to the vote.
About 10 days into the contest, so-called conscience rights emerged as an issue. Smith wouldn't say whether she supported allowing public workers to opt out of tasks, such as marrying gay couples or prescribing birth control, because of moral objections.
She said her party would set up a court system to handle complaints when they arise.
A few days later, Smith took flak for refusing to completely rule out whether citizen-initiated referendums could be used to delist the public funding for abortions.
In a column addressing that issue, Tory campaign manager Susan Elliot said, “Women understand who the target is (of those Wildrose proposals).. I'm the target. Ethnic minorities are targets. Gays and lesbians are targets. We’re the targets of those kinds of things.”
Smith sought to defuse some of the controversy by stating at a candidates' forum that she is pro-choice and pro-gay marriage, and that her party does not intend to legislate on moral issues.
But the socially conservative perception wasn't going away.
In the third week, an anti-gay blog post by candidate Allan Hunsperger came to light.
Then, Wildrose Calgary candidate Ron Leech told a radio show that, as a Caucasian man, he speaks to the whole community rather than just members of his own ethnic group. He later apologized.
Mayors of Edmonton and Calgary — Alberta's two biggest cities and home to scores of tightly contested seats — criticized those candidates' comments. Smith, meanwhile, staunchly stood behind both Hunsperger and Leech.
The leader stoked more controversy by questioning the widely accepted scientific theory that human activity causes global warming, saying that the "science isn't settled."
The Wildrose campaign was taking on such an ominous tone - according to progressives anyway - that they decided to get behind the only candidate who had a shot a derailing the Smith train, Redford.
So, in Alberta, likely one of the few places on Earth where two parties on the right will split the vote on the left, progressives mobilized behind an anyone-but-Wildrose style campaign, as activists on Twitter and discussions among parties in the centre and left decided to back what they saw as the lesser of two evils.
One of the most visual initiatives in that movement was the 'I Never Thought I'd Vote PC' video, which showcased a cadre of young people explaining that although they never thought they'd vote PC, the spectre of having the Wildrose come to power was, in their minds, so daunting, they were doing just that.
The overall strategy worked perfectly, so well in fact that what started as certain defeat for the Tories 28 days before the ballots were cast, instead gave the PCs their 11th consecutive majority government, in a dynasty that goes back to 1971.
Smith admitted to reporters that her party suffered some "self-inflicted wounds" toward the end of the campaign.
"And maybe that was enough to make people pause and say 'hmmm...maybe this group needs a little more seasoning.' I take that seriously. I know that we do have to do a little more work to be able to earn the trust of Albertans."
-With Files From CP.