Why choosing Alberta's next premier largely lies in the hands of folks in Rimbey, Strathmore and Three Hills

CBC News obtained a geographical breakdown of the UCP's membership list, for a glimpse of who may have edge ahead of October's leadership election.

Check out which candidates apparently thrived in member sales, and who fizzled

Candidates (left to right, Todd Loewen, Danielle Smith, Rajan Sawhney, Rebecca Schulz, Leela Aheer, Travis Toews and Brian Jean) attend the United Conservative Party of Alberta leadership candidates' debate in Medicine Hat, Alta., in July. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Small-town and rural Alberta had a disproportionate amount of sway in determining whether Premier Jason Kenney would stay or leave as United Conservative Party leader — and now, the identity of his successor largely lies in the hands of folks in Rimbey, Strathmore and Three Hills, too.

Alberta's governing party announced this week that 123,915 Albertans have registered as members and can vote in the party's members-only leadership election in October, confirming earlier CBC reporting.

This tells us that, while the candidates' membership sales more than doubled the party's size since Kenney's May leadership review, only 3.5 per cent of the eligible Alberta population will select the province's next premier.

Candidates had all raced to register new members before the Aug. 12 deadline. But afterwards, no contender was boasting publicly about their sales performance, unlike Pierre Poilievre's mighty claim in the federal Conservative race that he'd sold more than 300,000 new memberships out of the 675,000 total.

To get a finer-grained sense of what this contest's voter base looks like, CBC has obtained data showing where in Alberta these UCP members live, broken down by provincial riding. It signals strength for some candidates (there's a reason why Danielle Smith is widely considered the front-runner), potential trouble for others, and offers clarity on who gets to write this next chapter of Alberta's ever-turbulent political history.

(Note for the sticklers; these figures total only 123,905, as 10 members in the party's spreadsheet were listed as "unknown" ridings.)

Rural Alberta advantage

As the map above shows, the UCP leadership contest is a much bigger deal in southern and central Alberta than it is in the rest of the province.

The five ridings with the most UCP memberships (and eight of the top 10) are all located south of Red Deer.

Add those ridings together and that's 22,190 party members, or 18 per cent of the whole UCP base. That's more members than in all 20 Edmonton ridings put together.

Smith, who hails from the southern town of High River, is perceived by most Conservatives to be strongest in the south and central parts of Alberta, while main rivals Travis Toews and Brian Jean have bases in northwest and northeast Alberta, respectively.

Although Calgary and Edmonton represent more than half of Alberta's population, the big cities only hold 41 per cent of the governing party's members as of August. (And for every one capital city UCPer, there are nearly three Calgary members.)

The urban/non-urban split is roughly the same as in the spring member list, which means that counties and smaller towns remain quite overrepresented. But it also means the disparity did not increase after Smith and other candidates barnstormed the countryside's summer BBQs and small rodeos.

Just like the NDP-versus-UCP splits, the urban United Conservatives skew more moderate than their country-mouse relatives, so expect more votes in Cardston-Siksika and Taber-Warner for Smith than, say, Calgary's Rebecca Schulz (whose riding's member count ranks 30th out of 87 ridings). And expect the inverse in central Calgary or Edmonton.

But Calgary may prove somewhat of a Smith stronghold, too. She's held many of the best-attended events in city and small-town halls alike, and don't discount the number of hardline anti-Ottawa or vaccine-skeptical urban residents who crave Smith's messages.

Travis Toews, centre, makes a comment as Leela Aheer, left, and Brian Jean listen during the UCP leadership candidates' debate in July. Toews' riding of Grande Prairie–Wapiti saw the greatest number of new party members, according to data obtained by the CBC. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Travis Toews shows up

It's a safe bet that fewer than 100,000 UCP members will vote in this leadership race, considering that barely half of eligible partisans mailed in ballots in Kenney's review in May. Albertans who bought new memberships may be more likely to participate in this contest than those who've signed up for other reasons — like the review, or past nominations — so looking at hotspots for membership growth can be telling. (The CBC had obtained a similar breakdown of eligible party voters from spring, as well.)

And on that score, take a bow, Travis Toews. His riding of Grande Prairie-Wapiti saw the greatest number of new members, and the largest percentage increase, nearly quadrupling its spring totals.

This signals that the former finance minister is a potent ticket seller, at least on his home turf. The enthusiasm seems to have spread to the urban Grande Prairie riding next door.

Underdog candidate Leela Aheer appears to have been a strong seller in her Chestermere–Strathmore riding, too, growing its membership by more than Danielle Smith did in the riding she intends to represent, Livingstone-Macleod. That said, Smith's strength in southern Alberta could be showing up in Aheer's riding, too, especially in the parts further away from Calgary.

The new member statistics also may offer encouragement to Rajan Sawhney's camp, with her Calgary-North East riding showing robust growth, as well as the adjacent riding of Bhullar-McCall. Sawhney's campaign has spent heavy energy signing up new members in South Asian communities in Edmonton and Calgary, and while some of these results appear respectable, it may not vault her into the top tier of candidates.

Did Brian Jean peak early?

Membership sales may not bode so well for Brian Jean, the former Wildrose leader who played a prominent role in the fight to pry Jason Kenney's fingers off the captain's wheel.

Heading into the spring leadership review, Jean's riding in Fort McMurray had the third-most members, no doubt on the strength of his efforts last fall to win the nomination and a byelection for that contested seat. But in the months since then, sales in Fort McMurray-Lac La Biche were among the most anemic in Alberta — in percentage terms, only Calgary–East, which somehow managed to lose members between spring and August, was worse.

It could be that Jean's nomination contest had saturated the local market for members in a city notorious for its low political engagement and turnout — in the Cardston and Rimbey ridings, divisive UCP nomination battles earlier this year may have also activated far more locals than any of the leadership candidates are able to.

But then again, if Jean can't run up the totals in his own backyard, where else will he deliver big vote shares to overtake Smith or Toews?

Todd Loewen, the candidate who was kicked out of the UCP caucus last year, also didn't make a blockbuster showing in his own rural northern riding. While membership sales in Central Peace-Notley nearly tripled, it was one of the least engaged UCP ridings in rural Alberta before this race began, and now underperforms the rest of northwest Alberta, as well as the districts of all six leadership rivals.

The membership is now set for the contest, and candidates will begin phoning up and down the list — trying to persuade Edmontonians to give Schulz a chance, hoping to pry loose some Didsbury support for Toews, and the like. The map may look best for Smith, but there's plenty of campaigning and cajoling to come yet.


Jason Markusoff

Producer and writer

Jason Markusoff analyzes what's happening — and what isn't happening, but probably should be — in Calgary and sometimes farther afield. He's written in Alberta for nearly two decades with Maclean's magazine, the Calgary Herald and Edmonton Journal. He appears regularly on Power and Politics' Power Panel and various other CBC current affairs shows. Reach him at


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