From breakthrough to beat down, it could be 'ugly' for Justin Trudeau's Liberals in Alberta

In 2015, for the first time in nearly half a century, Calgarians elected two Liberal MPs. But you can mark it down as a blip in history, according to a Calgary political scientist.

"This [was] with a popular, charismatic Liberal leader and an unpopular Conservative incumbent," said Mount Royal University's Duane Bratt, who was reflecting back on the fall of 2015.

"Those things are all gone now," he said.

Kent Hehr won his Calgary Centre seat by 750 votes. Darshan Kang won the northeast riding of Calgary Skyview by a much wider margin of more than 2,700 votes.

The party picked up two more seats in Edmonton: Randy Boissonnault in Edmonton Centre, and Amarjeet Sohi in Edmonton Mill Woods (winning by less than 100 votes). 

The NDP picked up one seat in Edmonton Strathcona. The other 29 seats in Alberta went to the Conservatives.  

Tory sweep?

At dissolution for this election, the Conservatives held 28 seats, the Liberals three, the NDP one, and there was one independent, Darshan Kang. One seat, Calgary Forest Lawn, is vacant following the death last month of long-time Conservative MP Deepak Obhrai. 

It's been a rough four years for Calgary's two MPs elected under the Liberal banner. Hehr resigned from cabinet after allegations of sexual harassment came to light. Kang was kicked out of caucus after he was found to have sexually harassed a member of his office staff.

"It's going to be very tough for the Liberals to win any seats in Calgary or in Edmonton. But I think definitely in Calgary," said Bratt.

Recent polling seems to back that up.

338Canada's popular vote projection for Alberta shows the Conservatives poised to pick up 61 per cent. The Liberals are a distant second at 17 per cent. 

338Canada.com predicts the Conservatives will take 33 of Alberta's 34 seats. It lists Edmonton-Strathcona as a toss up. The riding had been held by long-time NDP MP Linda Duncan, who is not seeking re-election.

Alberta has been a stronghold for conservative parties for decades.

And Conservative Party leader Andrew Scheer has championed Alberta's energy sector in recent months, slamming the federal Liberals for its handling of the oil patch.  

Buying a pipeline doesn't buy votes

It's also been a rough ride for Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, whose decision to purchase the Trans Mountain pipeline for $4.5 billion appears to have done little to convince Albertans that the Liberals are on their side.

Calgary-based pollster Janet Brown echoes what she's hearing: "So, sure Trudeau bought us a pipeline, but our preference would have been a political environment where it would have been possible for the private sector to do that project."

"Even if Trans Mountain gets through despite all of these other challenges, you have made sure that there's no other pipeline," Bratt said, paraphrasing Conservative sentiment. 

Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

Brown says that when you factor all of that in along with the sputtering economic recovery, Albertans are frustrated.

"We're seeing evidence that there's a growing sense of sort of alienation, we're hearing talk about separatism," said Brown.

"As a population, Alberta is a lot crankier than they were in 2015." 

Bratt predicts Trudeau won't spend a lot of time campaigning in Calgary, perhaps just a "whistle-stop" event, but that's it.

"I think he might spend some time in Edmonton because I think there's still some chances there," he said.

The Prime Minister's Office said Trudeau's recent stop in Calgary during the Stampede was his 14th visit to the city since he was elected — and his 23rd to the province. 

The Kenney effect

While Trudeau will likely spend most of the campaign outside Alberta, Premier Jason Kenney is expected to do the same on behalf of his federal Conservative cousins.

Former Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne campaigned on behalf of Trudeau in 2015, and former Newfoundland premier Danny Williams campaigned against his Conservative brethren.

However, University of Calgary's Melanee Thomas says Kenney's expected involvement in the upcoming federal campaign would be unconventional if he takes an active role outside the province.

"It's not unprecedented but it certainly is unusual for somebody in our premier's office to be actively campaigning against a party leader at another level of government, particularly outside their own province," she said.

CBC News requested details about Kenney's plans for the campaign, but hadn't heard back by publication time.

More votes to chase

While Alberta's economy has been limping along since 2015, the population has grown — by almost 400,000 — and with it the number of eligible voters.  

There were 2,842,504 eligible voters in Alberta in the 2015 federal election.

Elections Canada estimates the number of eligible electors in the prairie province has risen to 3,045,102 for the 2019 election.  

But the number of electoral districts remains unchanged at 34. One of the highlights from 2015 was voter turnout, which hit 68.2 per cent, the highest in more than a decade.

Bryan Labby is an enterprise reporter with CBC Calgary. If you have a good story idea or tip, you can reach him at bryan.labby@cbc.ca or on Twitter at @CBCBryan.