Danielle Smith should take notes from Arizona's election losers

A populist and polarizing ex-broadcaster struggled in what used to be a very conservative state. Alberta's premier should be paying attention if she doesn't want to suffer the same fate.

A polarizing ex-broadcaster struggled in what used to be a very conservative state. Sound familiar?

Kari Lake, the Republican candidate for governor in Arizona, lost this month to a Democrat in what used to be a reliably conservative state. Comparisons to Alberta's Danielle Smith don't end with the fact both women were telegenic former broadcasters. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

This column is an opinion by Rahim Mohamed, a Calgary-based freelance writer who has studied political science in the United States. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith no doubt has a lot on her plate, but she may also want to watch the recent election returns from the newly-competitive Grand Canyon State closely before her own re-election bid next May.

Alberta is often compared to the deep-red conservative state of Texas on account of surface-level similarities like oil wealth and cattle. In fact, it's grown much closer politically to the "purple" state of Arizona.

It wasn't too long ago that Arizona, home to conservative icons Barry Goldwater and John McCain, was redder than red; a state election handicappers could comfortably put in the Republican column before the first ballot was even cast.

But Arizona's changing demographics have made it one of America's most competitive states in recent election cycles.

Appraising Arizona

Arizona, like Alberta, is a fast-growing place, welcoming tens of thousands of migrants from neighbouring regions each year. Arizona is also notably multi-ethnic and has one of the largest Native American populations in the United States (5.5 per cent of Arizonans and seven per cent of Albertans claim Indigenous ancestry).

And Alberta has also become far more competitive at the ballot box in recent years, having gone from 44 straight years of Progressive Conservative rule to one term of New Democrat government (2015-2019). Now there's another conservative ruling party and what polls show may be yet another change coming next spring. (Both of Arizona's U.S. senators are now Democrats, which hadn't happened since 1952.)

As in Arizona, demographic change has driven Alberta's electorate to the middle; Alberta's population has grown steadily over time, with many new Albertans arriving from more politically moderate provinces. 

Smith might want to pay particular attention to the fate of Kari Lake, the losing Republican candidate for governor.

Much like Smith, Lake is a polished, well-spoken and telegenic politician with a populist bent and a professional background in broadcasting.

A woman waves to a crowd.
Alberta Premier Danielle Smith, like her counterpart in Arizona, has drawn controversy for her factually questionable statements and beliefs. (Amber Bracken/The Canadian Press)

Lake, a favourite of ex-president Donald Trump's base, gained national attention by repeatedly claiming that she believes the 2020 presidential election was stolen. This is a theory that Smith herself has lent credence to in social media posts.

Last week, Lake went down in defeat, as the Arizona governor's race was called for Democrat Katie Hobbs. 

All known election deniers running for statewide office in Arizona have lost or are behind in their races, including Senate candidate Blake Masters and Mark Finchem, the Republican nominee for secretary of state.

Sixty-three per cent of Arizonans told exit pollsters they believed Joe Biden "legitimately won" the 2020 election and nearly three-quarters were "confident" their state's elections were fair. This indicates the rhetoric espoused by Lake and other prominent election deniers failed to sway Arizonans, including many who identify as Republican. 

All the Republicans who denied the results of the 2020 presidential election have lost or are behind in their statewide contests in the Grand Canyon State. (Ross D. Franklin/The Associated Press)

Meanwhile, next door in Nevada, Republican gubernatorial candidate Joe Lombardo had accepted Donald Trump's endorsement but also said that he did not believe that the 2020 election was rigged. He won narrowly over incumbent Steve Sisolak. 

The electoral results reaffirm that Arizonans are equipped with finely-tuned BS detectors. It's no coincidence Arizona's most beloved public official in recent memory, the late senator John McCain, was known for his "straight talk."

As Kari Lake tweeted (ironically) on Monday night: "Arizonans know BS when they see it." 

Like a Phoenix

So what can Danielle Smith do over the next six months to avoid the fate of her fallen counterpart in Arizona?

Above all, Smith should take Lake's fate as a cue to address her own credibility problem. Smith has courted opprobrium for her dubious statements about Russia's invasion of Ukraine, an argument that cancer is within a patient's control before it reaches Stage 4, and alternative COVID treatments. If Albertans can't trust the words that are coming out of Smith's mouth, how will they trust her enough to vote to keep her in the province's top job?

Smith also needs to understand that the Alberta of today is a different place than the province she knew almost a decade ago as leader of the right-wing Wildrose Party. She can no longer take for granted that Alberta voters are reliably conservative, even in Calgary and smaller communities. Alberta is now a "brown" (blue + orange) province. Smith will need to adjust to this reality to give her UCP a fighting chance in May. 

Albertans, like their relatives on the American frontier, know BS when they see it. Danielle Smith may just find that the truth will set her free — and on a path to re-election.

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Rahim Mohamed

Freelance contributor

Rahim Mohamed is a freelance writer based in Calgary. He holds a PhD in political science from the University of North Carolina — Chapel Hill, and is currently studying at the University of Calgary's School of Public Policy.