Danielle Smith says she never got her hopes up about winning the United Conservative Party leadership.
She kept a skeptical view of the campaign despite polling throughout the race placing her well ahead of runner up Travis Toews.
“I’ve been disappointed before,” Smith told True North in a phone interview Friday afternoon, just one day after she was elected leader of the UCP and premier-designate of Alberta.
“Elections are funny things. You never know how they’re gonna go.”
Smith is no stranger to political losses. As leader of the Wildrose party, she lost the 2012 election to Alison Redford’s PCs. In October 2014, she lost four byelections which left the Wildrose bankrupt, in part spurring Smith’s desire to merge with Jim Prentice’s PCs as he threatened an election.
And after crossing the floor to join Prentice, she lost the PC nomination in her riding. Swaths of Albertans blamed the floor crossing for the PCs losing the 2015 election to the NDP.
Reflecting on all this, Smith says she “didn’t really want to think” what the day after the leadership announcement might look like.
Like new federal Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre, Smith’s campaign targeted those disillusioned by government overreach during the Covid-19 pandemic. And like Poilievre, Smith promised supporters to make her jurisdiction the most free and prosperous place on earth.
But Smith’s win wasn’t as decisive as the federal Tory leader who won on the first ballot with 68% of the vote. She pulled past the 50% plus one mark required for victory in the preferred ballot system on the sixth ballot with 53.8%, beating Toews by just a couple points.
In those tense hours, Smith fell back on her already “very low” expectations to eke out a win.
She wasn’t sure of the victory till she reached 47% on the fourth ballot after Leela Aheer, Rajan Sawhney, Todd Lowen and then Rebecca Schulz fell off.
At that moment, Smith was worried about gaffing on her victory speech. She says she didn’t prepare much because she didn’t want to take her victory for granted and overpractice.
Thursday night’s victory could be the first in Smith’s road to one of the greatest comebacks in Canada’s political history.
“I think everybody looks for redemption story,” she says.
“I think everybody has had moments in their life where they’ve done things that they’ve regretted and hurt others and you always hope that you can make amends.”
First, Smith needs a seat in the legislature. She was the only of the seven UCP leadership candidates not currently an MLA.
She will run in a Brooks-Medicine Hat byelection after UCP MLA Michaela Frey resigned on Friday morning and encouraged Smith to take her spot. If the byelection is called next week, Smith says she could be in the Alberta legislature as early as November 29.
After that, Smith has limited time to make good on her promises to deliver an Alberta Sovereignty Act ahead of a spring general election. She’s already said she won’t call the election early.
And Smith thinks Kenney’s decision to wade into the leadership race — he called Smith’s Sovereignty Act a “laughing stock” — means there’s some “repair work” for the UCP brand.
“I’m prepared to work on that and demonstrate to people that there’s nothing to fear (from the) UCP government and that we are going to make sure that we put the interests of Albertans first, take care of our most vulnerable and also stand up in a strong way to Ottawa,” she said.
“So I think people will have to watch and see what we implement in the fall and in the spring.”