Battle for the ‘burbs: Suburban Edmonton ridings are critical this election, experts say

As the Alberta election draws to a close, UCP Leader Jason Kenney is focusing his campaigning efforts on ridings in and around the province’s capital, with stops Monday in Sherwood Park, Edmonton-Ellerslie, and St. Albert.

There is a good strategic reason for that, says Mount Royal political scientist Keith Brownsey.

“I think the suburban ridings in both Edmonton and Calgary are terribly important for both the UCP and the New Democrats,” Brownsey said.

“They hold the key to election victory.”

The suburban ridings on the outskirts of Edmonton were a critical part of 2015’s “orange wave” that swept the NDP to power and ended 44 years of Progressive Conservative rule, Brownsey said.

For example, Fort Saskatchewan-Vegreville was a conservative stronghold after its creation in 2003. Former Progressive Conservative premier Ed Stelmach represented the riding from 2004 to 2012, then was succeeded by another PC MLA, Jacquie Fenske.

But in the 2015 election, rookie NDP candidate Jessica Littlewood defeated Fenske by nearly 3,000 votes, about 16 per cent of the total votes cast.

Other NDP candidates wrested ridings from PC incumbents. Annie McKitrick won Sherwood Park, Marie Renaud took St. Albert, and Christina Gray became MLA of Edmonton-Mill Woods.

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All four are running for re-election and, according to Concordia University political science professor Elizabeth Smythe, it’s crucial that they maintain those seats.

“Their stronghold is very much in the Edmonton area. And they have got a few ridings in the north,” she said.

In Calgary, the NDP won 15 of 25 seats in 2015, “but the reality is, in at least a lot of the polls, they are well behind in anywhere in southern Alberta,” Smythe continued.

“And so if they were going to try to form a majority, they would really have to pick up those suburban ridings.”

Ridings critical for both NDP and UCP

Conversely, Smythe said, it is essential for the UCP to make in-roads in the Edmonton area. She said Kenney and the UCP clearly have a lot of support in southern rural Alberta, and she predicts the party will win many Calgary seats.

“Will that be quite enough for a majority?” she asked. “Certainly, if (Kenney) wants quite a strong majority, I think the UCP would want to pick up a number of those (ridings).”

Brownsey said the strategic importance of these ridings — and of courting the demographics that comprise them — is evident from the party platforms, especially the NDP’s.

“Their $25-a day daycare is aimed directly at suburban families, especially at women in the Edmonton and Calgary suburbs,” Brownsey said.

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To be successful, a political party must show they understand the infrastructure challenges these ridings often face, he said.

“These suburban and exurban ridings are crying out for new schools, they are crying out for public transit, they are crying out for public services more generally,” Brownsey said.

“And it is the party, I think, that can provide those — or at least promise them in some meaningful way — that will have an impact in these ridings.”

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