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Erin O’Toole’s Conservatives are not immune from the struggles of pandemic-rattled premiers

Alberta is now one of Canada’s worst COVID-19 hotspots and Premier Jason Kenney’s handling of the pandemic in his province is getting low marks, according to polls.

It might also be sapping support for the federal Conservative Party in its most loyal stronghold.

On Sunday and Monday, Alberta reported over 1,500 new cases of COVID-19 — a number similar to or greater than the daily counts in Ontario and Quebec, two provinces with much larger populations. The province’s hospitals are filling up and there are serious concerns that continued spread will push the health care system beyond its limits.

Kenney introduced a series of new measures and restrictions on Tuesday, but throughout the crisis Kenney’s United Conservatives have adopted an ideological approach to the pandemic — banking on appeals to personal responsibility and individual freedom rather than restrictions and lockdowns, with an eye toward keeping businesses open.

It hasn’t worked. If Canada as a whole experienced Alberta’s per capita growth in cases, its total would be well over 10,000 new cases per day — ranking it as one of the worst-afflicted countries in the world.

Albertans are not pleased. Last week’s survey by Léger for the Canadian Press and the Association for Canadian Studies found just 37 per cent of Albertans reporting satisfaction with the measures put in place by the provincial government. That put Kenney’s government at the bottom of the ranking of provincial governments in the poll — and lower than Albertans’ expressed satisfaction (46 per cent) with the measures put in by Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government in Ottawa.

Alberta’s nine-point spread in that poll — between voters’ satisfaction with provincial pandemic measures and their assessment of Ottawa’s performance — was the widest in the country.

The poll was conducted between Nov. 13 and 15, when Alberta was averaging 975 new cases per day. With the province’s daily count of new cases now hovering around 1,500, it is unlikely Kenney’s numbers have improved.

That’s also indicated by a more recent survey by ThinkHQ conducted between Nov. 18 and 21, when the number of new cases in the province was averaging around 1,082 per day. It found that 51 per cent of Albertans felt measures announced earlier in the month did not “go far enough,” while just 13 per cent said they went too far.

Approval for implementing a mandatory mask order in Alberta was 81 per cent in that poll, while 78 per cent approved of more rigorous enforcement of the rules for the individuals and businesses now breaking them.

Federal Conservative support down in Alberta

Albertans’ growing dissatisfaction with Kenney coincides with a decline in support for the federal Conservatives in Alberta.

Since March 2, when the pandemic was just beginning in Canada, the Conservatives have slipped only 1.2 percentage points in national support in the CBC’s Poll Tracker. But the party is down 8.3 points in Alberta — significantly more than anywhere else in the country.

With just over 51 per cent support in Alberta, the Conservatives are down nearly 18 points since the 2019 federal election. The Liberals are up 10 points in the province, to around 24 per cent, while the NDP is up six points to 18 per cent.

The Conservatives might not need to worry too much about this slide — the party still has majority support in the province and the polls under-estimated the Conservative vote share by between eight and nine points in last year’s election. The polls also under-estimated support for Kenney’s UCP in the 2019 provincial election, as they did for the conservative Saskatchewan Party in October’s election there.

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Polls suggest that Albertans’ reported satisfaction with Premier Jason Kenney’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic is dropping as the caseload rises. (Todd Korol / Canadian Press)

But a total swing of roughly 28 points between the Conservatives and Liberals would be enough to flip three Conservative seats — Edmonton Centre, Edmonton Mill Woods and Calgary Skyview. A swing of 24 points between the Conservatives and NDP would put Edmonton Griesbach on the bubble.

Granted, that’s only four seats. It’s also only one province. Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole — who greatly benefited from Kenney’s endorsement during the party leadership campaign — has a lot of fellow-travellers in premiers’ offices in provinces now suffering a spike in cases.

Premiers across the country struggling to contain COVID-19

Nearly every province in Canada is in the midst of a second wave that is worse than the first one last spring. Nearly every province also happens to be governed by a conservative of one stripe or another — only British Columbia, Newfoundland and Labrador and Nova Scotia are governed by New Democrats or Liberals.

It’s a bit of bad luck for O’Toole that conservative parties swept NDP and Liberal provincial governments from power in the years immediately before the pandemic — because there might be some collateral damage for O’Toole if the fortunes of other blue-branded premiers sink.

WATCH: Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister defends the province’s pandemic response

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Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister insists his province’s restrictions are the most stringent in the country. 8:00

Along with Kenney, Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister was the only other premier to score less than 50 per cent satisfaction on COVID-19 measures in last week’s Léger survey. The sample size is small in the Léger poll but Pallister has been consistently below 50 per cent since mid-October. As of last week, Manitoba had the highest per-capita COVID-19 infection rate in the country.

A recent Probe Research poll with a larger sample found public approval of the Pallister government’s health measures during the pandemic plummeting from 77 per cent in June to 46 per cent in early November.

Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe has so far avoided a similar downturn in support. His party was re-elected with its fourth consecutive majority government last month.

But the federal Conservatives are still down 4.6 points in Manitoba and Saskatchewan since March, a slide second only to the one the party experienced in Alberta.

Support for the approach taken by Ontario Premier Doug Ford, another conservative, also has been slipping in recent weeks, according to Léger. That could be a problem for O’Toole’s Conservatives, who have yet to poll higher in Ontario than they did in last year’s federal election.

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Erin O’Toole’s Conservatives continue to trail the Liberals in national polls, including in key electoral battlegrounds like British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec. (Sean Kilpatrick / Canadian Press)

As the Official Opposition in Ottawa, O’Toole and his MPs have been attacking the Trudeau government’s handling of the pandemic, attributing the spike in cases to Liberal inaction on rapid testing and data collection, while demanding the Liberals explain their plans for the distribution of a vaccine when one is ready.

It doesn’t seem to be putting a dent in Liberal support just yet. Some Canadians living in COVID-19 hotspots appear to be pointing the finger at governments closer to home — and their federal cousins are feeling the heat.

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