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Alberta Party candidate Stephen Mandel, speaks during the Alberta Party's first leadership debate in Edmonton Alta, on Jan. 24, 2018.JASON FRANSON/The Canadian Press

The Alberta Party had a small but significant breakthrough in 2015, sending Greg Clark to the legislature as the party’s first elected MLA. It was a decisive win – 42 per cent – that dwarfed the party’s comparatively dismal performance across the province.

In the intervening years, the Alberta Party used two floor crossings to increase its bench strength and attracted Stephen Mandel, the former three-term mayor of Edmonton, as leader. The result has been an outsized profile for a party that many voters would have – at best – only a passing familiarity with, but which nonetheless is hoping for an even larger breakthrough this spring.

But the party, which has positioned itself as a moderate middle-ground in a province that has become increasingly polarized, faces significant challenges ahead of an election that will be framed as a stark choice between the governing New Democrats and the United Conservative Party.

The Alberta Party captured just 2.2 per cent of the popular vote in 2015 and while its support has increased, it has rarely polled above 10 per cent. It also lost one of its incumbents after former New Democrat Karen McPherson announced she is not running again, citing personal reasons.

Still, Mr. Mandel says growing discontent with the government and the Opposition has left voters hungry for a fresh alternative.

“We believe we’ll offer an option that’s reasonable, that’s creative and dynamic,” Mr. Mandel said in an interview. “People don’t like the other two options right now."

The Alberta Party describes itself as fiscally conservative and socially progressive – phrasing that brings back memories of the former Progressive Conservatives. In fact, the party has attracted a number of former PC members, including Mr. Mandel, who was briefly health minister under then-premier Jim Prentice before that government lost power in 2015.

Mr. Mandel, however, says the party is going after voters from across the political spectrum, rather than focusing on supporters of a particular party.

Despite the apparent long odds, Mr. Mandel insists he’s running to be premier. He notes that no one thought the New Democrats had any chance of forming government ahead of the 2015 election.

“The reality is that anything can happen in an election,” he said. “We have to be realistic with our expectations, but we also have to be ready to govern and have the kind of people on our team who can do that."

The party has also moved past what could have been a fatal setback after Elections Alberta slapped Mr. Mandel and several other Alberta Party candidates with five-year bans on running for public office after missing filing deadlines for financial reports related to their nomination contests.

Mr. Mandel and his candidates successfully challenged the bans. In Mr. Mandel’s case, a judge ruled that a five-year ban on running for office was disproportionate for a relatively minor offence.

While he has yet to release a full platform for this year’s election, Mr. Mandel has made several policy announcements, such as a “holistic” approach to pipelines that focuses on engagement with First Nations, increased refining, and a tax on foreign oil. Mr. Mandel was an early advocate for oil production limits as a way to boost prices, which the NDP government eventually put in place on Jan. 1 of this year.

Mr. Mandel has also proposed mandatory vaccines in public schools. He said a full platform would be released early in the campaign.

The party has been around since the 1980s, though has never been much of a factor in provincial politics. It was originally seen as a fringe right-wing party but moved to the centre when it merged with Renew Alberta in 2010.

It gained its first MLA in 2011, when Dale Taylor joined the party. He had been sitting as an Independent after leaving the Alberta Liberals the previous year.

Mr. Clark stepped down as leader in the fall of 2017 and was subsequently replaced by Mr. Mandel, whose lack of a seat in the legislature was seen as an asset that would allow him to fundraise and build the party.

Ms. McPherson crossed the floor from the New Democrats in 2017 while Mr. Clark was still leader, while Rick Fraser came over from the United Conservatives in 2018.

The party plans to run candidates in all 87 ridings for the first time.

Mr. Mandel acknowledges the party can’t match the fundraising power of either the UCP or the NDP; it has raised almost $600,000 last year – compared with the NDP’s $3.4-million and $6.7-million for the United Conservatives. But he expects to be campaigning across the province, albeit on a smaller budget than his competitors.

Janet Brown, a Calgary-based pollster, said the Alberta Party will need to convince voters that it’s a viable option. That’s especially true for strategic voters, who might worry that a vote for the Alberta Party could inadvertently elect someone they oppose.

"People don’t want to 'throw their vote away,’” Ms. Brown said. “If people don’t recognize they live in a riding where the Alberta Party stands a chance, then people won’t be paying any attention to them.”

Ms. Brown said if the party would we well served to focus on a small number of ridings where it has the greatest chance for success. If it can maintain or increase its support, the party could finish the campaign with a handful of seats, though anything more than that is unlikely, she said.

Chaldeans Mensah, who teaches political science at MacEwan University in Edmonton, said most voters simply don’t know what the Alberta Party is. He said it will be crucial for Mr. Mandel to have a spot in leaders’ debates.

“It’s one of the biggest short-term openings that the party is likely to have," he said. "If they are shut out, it would be very difficult for them to convey their message.”

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