Paths to Success for Alberta Political Parties

March 2014: Alison Redford resigns as leader of the Progressive Conservative Association of Alberta and Premier of Alberta. Danielle Smith and her Wildrose Party were soaring in the polls as the PCs were dealing with deep wounds inflicted by Redford’s scandal plagued regime. The idea of Jim Prentice leaving his comfortable post as VP at CIBC to run for the leadership of the struggling PCs seemed like a far fetched fantasy. Raj Sherman was still blindly navigating his Alberta Liberals directly into the iceberg of obscurity. Brian Mason and the NDP were not going anywhere too quickly but had established a comfortable base of support in Edmonton.

And then…the political etch-a-sketch shook.

Fast forward to March 2015: Jim Prentice is PC leader and riding high in the polls. The Wildrose was devastated as it lost the majority of its caucus (including their leader!) as they crossed over to same PC party that they had been so effectively at criticizing. The Alberta Liberals (despite a brief flirtation with receiving Official Opposition status by default) are no longer led by Raj Sherman, are losing two of their Calgary MLAs (Kent Hehr and Darshan Kang) who are running for the Trudeau Liberals and Laurie Blakeman who is one of their most effective MLAs has been hung out to dry as she has tried to work with the Alberta Party. The Alberta NDP has chosen Edmonton MLA Rachel Notley to replace Brian Mason as he stepped down from leadership in April.

The etch-a-sketch has erased everything that we thought we knew about Alberta politics just one year ago. The PCs appear to be in a dominant position going into the campaign but, as we’ve seen, things can change quickly in Alberta politics.

The Paths to Success

Progressive Conservative Association of Alberta

What does success look like for the PCs?

Re-Election. Hold onto all seats from Wildrose floor crossers as it recovers its strength in rural Alberta. Continue and build upon its strength in Calgary by picking up seats from Liberals (ie Buffalo and Northeast). Fend off surging NDP in Edmonton.

Strengths:

  • New leader has successfully divorced party from unpopular previous regime
  • Vast financial resources with a rebuilt corporate base
  • Strong Electoral machine
  • Power of Incumbency
  • Weakness on right flank and in middle of political spectrum

Weaknesses:

  • Answering for tough budget may invigorate opposition parties
  • No clear rationale for election call when there is a legislated election period – looks politically craven
  • Mismanagement of GSA issue/floor-crossing
  • Candidate nomination process has exposed some internal party strife that could have alienated some party activists

How do the PCs obtain success in this election?

  • Avoid treating the election as a necessary evil. The PCs have governed for almost 44 years and have to avoid coming off as arrogant and dismissive of democratic structures.
  • Continue to occupy the majority of the centre right of the political spectrum while pushing the Wildrose further to the fringe right.
  • Prentice needs to avoid making unforced errors throughout the campaign. He has proven that he has a penchant for walking himself into mistakes (ie blaming Albertans, candidate nomination messes, Bill 10, mishandling the floor crossing) and under the pressure of a campaign, mistakes like these are far more likely.
  • Successfully sell the need for a budget that included billions of dollars of increased taxes.
  • Divorce themselves from the PC policies that created the fiscal hole that Alberta government is in.
  • Frame the election as a PC vs NDP battle. This would marginalize both the Wildrose and Liberals and would allow the PCs to pick up potential “blue Liberal” voters in Calgary and Edmonton while picking up moderate Wildrose supporters.

Wildrose Party of Alberta

What does success look like for the Wildrose Party?

It looks unlikely that the Wildrose will be able to compete for government in this election. The defection of Danielle Smith and the others has set back the party by a full election cycle. New Wildrose leader Brian Jean will have only a couple of weeks before the writ drops to establish some name recognition.

Success for the Wildrose will be to maintain the seats that they currently hold and to pick up the seats of those who crossed the floor. They also need to establish more of a foothold in urban Calgary and in Edmonton. This likely won’t lead to additional seats in either city but they need to increase their vote share in both cities to help position themselves for the next provincial election.

Strengths:

  • Large financial base from pre-floor crossing era
  • Tax increases from budget could open opportunity for Wildrose anti-tax message
  • Anger from much of Alberta electorate for the defections

Weaknesses:

  • Written off by many Albertans as a lost cause after the floor crossing
  • Leader without a profile
  • Have struggled to find an effective message against Prentice
  • Loss of corporate financial base to the PCs
  • Few heavyweight candidates who can win on their own personal brand

How does the Wildrose Party obtain success in this election?

This election is very different for the party than the 2012 election was. In this election they are fighting for their existence as a party.

  • Spend significant resources to build Brian Jean’s media profile.
  • Capitalize on the opening presented by the tax increases in the budget to build a compelling case for a strong fiscally conservative opposition.
  • Focus on the constituencies that they currently represent and target a few additional constituencies that have weak incumbents. Don’t stretch resources too thin.
  • Determine if they will present themselves as a rural right wing populist party or a bigger tent conservative party that will compete on Prentice’s turf. The rural populist route would allow them to consolidate their base but could turn them into back into the rural rump that they were under Paul Hinman. If they go the other route and take on Prentice by following Smith’s original plan to moderate the party, they may alienate their rural base but they could build in the urban centres to help set them up for future elections.
  • Avoid any “bozo eruptions” from candidates throughout the election campaign.

Alberta Liberals

What does success look like for the Alberta Liberals?

To say that things have not gone well for the Liberals is an understatement. They have alienated their most effective remaining MLA in Laurie Blakeman, they are losing two of their Calgary MLAs, their leader quit a couple of months before the election, they will likely be running in an election with an interim leader, and they are facing an invigorated challenge from the progressive left in the Notley-led NDP.

For the Alberta Liberals, success will be keeping their existing seats and maintaining enough relevance so that whoever becomes the full time leader after the election can have something to build upon.

Strengths:

  • David Swann is an experienced, steady leader who isn’t prone to major gaffes and is generally well regarded
  • The Liberal brand is rebounding under Justin Trudeau’s federal leadership and they have performed well in recent federal by-elections in Calgary and Fort McMurray
  • Bill 202/Bill 10 gave the Alberta Liberals significant media exposure and a success that they can carry into an election
  • Blakeman and Swann have a good chance of holding their own constituencies based on their personal brand
  • Weaker Wildrose may make voters less scared to vote Liberal than they were in 2012

Weaknesses:

  • Swann lacks charisma and could be overshadowed by Notley
  • Short period between Raj Sherman’s resignation as leader and the election writ drop to undo some of the damage
  • Party is lagging in candidate nominations and have not been able to do much pre-election “on the ground” campaigning
  • Hired Raj Sherman to manage campaign
  • Party will be very hard-pressed to hold onto Hehr and Kang’s ridings without their personal appeal
  • Faces an ideological squeeze between Prentice on the right and Notley on the left
  • Has spent significant time debating co-operation with Alberta Party/Alberta Greens with little to show for it. In fact the discussion has proven to be both a distraction and a divisive issue within the party

How do the Alberta Liberals obtain success in this election?

The Liberals have the lowest bar to reach to obtain success but face the largest hurdles to obtain it.

  • David Swann has to outperform expectations throughout the campaign.
  • They need to keep the election from becoming an absolute PC romp or a horse race between either the PCs/WR or PCs/NDP
  • A stronger Wildrose presence would split the right vote and subsequently lower the percentage of vote required to elect a Liberal MLA.
  • They will likely need mistakes from either Prentice or Notley to capitalize on.
  • They need to focus their resources on just a few ridings to maintain their presence in the Legislature.
  • They need to fight back the NDP surge in Edmonton to allow them to retake seats in a future election. The Liberals would be better served with re-elected PC MLAs in Edmonton than new NDP MLAs.

Alberta’s NDP

What does success look like for Alberta’s NDP?

As the only opposition party that has an upward trajectory, the NDP is looking to make significant gains. Many in the party are aiming towards Official Opposition status. To get there, the NDP will want to turn its strong Edmonton polling into several more Edmonton seats. They also are aiming to pick up Lethbridge West and have a good showing in Calgary. In a dream scenario, they would win Calgary Fort. In a more realistic scenario, supplanting the Alberta Liberals as the progressive option throughout the province is real success.

Strengths:

  • Seeming upward trajectory
  • Rachel Notley has been capturing majority of media attention as Wildrose and Liberals have lost leaders
  • Higher profile candidates throughout province than previous campaigns – candidates have been working “on the ground” for longer than candidates from other opposition parties
  • Larger war-chest than previous elections
  • Strong base of support in Edmonton – allows leader to leave Edmonton to campaign in areas that the party is trying to build
  • Weaker Wildrose may make voters less scared to vote NDP than they were in 2012

Weaknesses:

  • Federal Orange Wave has receded and party has done poorly in federal by-elections
  • Prentice’s budget may undercut NDP message of changing income tax structure
  • Weaker Wildrose may not allow for vote splits that the NDP can benefit from in certain target ridings
  • Smaller war-chest than the PCs and Wildrose
  • Base of support in areas outside of ¬†Edmonton¬†is still not as strong as they would like

How does the Alberta’s NDP obtain success in this election?

  • Need to frame election as a choice between PCs and NDP – marginalizing both the Wildrose and Liberals. They have to become the “anyone but PC” option.
  • Need to put Rachel Notley front and centre. She is a huge asset.
  • Party platform needs to have at least a few ambitious party planks to excite their base. They need to learn lessons from Ontario, BC, and Nova Scotia where the NDP tried to “broaden their base” but forgot their base. Particular in Ontario and Nova Scotia, the NDP was outflanked to the left by the Liberals and this alienated many of the party’s traditional¬†supporters and volunteers.
  • Put forward a compelling clean energy strategy that does not demonize oil companies. Many Albertans (particularly Calgarians) see working in oil and gas as a means to provide for their families and do not want those jobs to go away.
  • Present a clear progressive alternative to the tax increases in Prentice’s budget. Don’t allow the Prentice tax increases (ie largely personal consumption taxes/user fees) sour Albertans on progressive tax options.

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