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NDP leader Rachel Notley waves to supporters during a pre-election rally in Edmonton on May 3, 2015. Ms. Notley on Tuesday announced plans to step down from the NDP’s top jobThe Globe and Mail

The last time Alberta’s New Democrats had a leadership race, the late Jim Prentice was the Progressive Conservative premier, Danielle Smith’s Wildrose Party served as the Official Opposition, and the provincial Liberals had five seats in the legislature.

The NDP had a caucus of four in October, 2014, when Rachel Notley won her party’s leadership contest with 70 per cent of the vote. It was unimaginable then that she would even have a shot at forming government. The next election was, at the time, likely two years away.

Seven months later, Ms. Notley was premier.

And now, after Ms. Notley on Tuesday announced plans to step down from the NDP’s top job, the party she transformed is on the verge of the first competitive and consequential leadership race in its history.

“This is now a valuable position to seek,” said Anne McGrath, who served as Ms. Notley’s principal secretary and does the same for Jagmeet Singh at the federal level. “It is not a poisoned chalice. Nobody is going to be feeling bad for whoever wins. It is a trophy now.”

The NDP was the fourth party in Alberta’s legislature when Ms. Notley took over. Under her tenure, it ran government between 2015 and 2019 and has been the Official Opposition since. It is now the largest opposition caucus in Alberta’s history, after consolidating support among those who backed parties other than the province’s right-leaning options and convincing moderate conservatives to vote NDP.

Mason: Rachel Notley profoundly reshaped Alberta politics

The leadership race will test whether Ms. Notley’s version of the NDP is self-sustaining or whether the coalition she built crumbles without her. Ms. Notley moved the party closer to the centre with its economic strategy. It embraced some oil pipelines, for example, while pursuing regulations to protect the environment and raising corporate taxes.

The PC and Wildrose parties merged in 2017 to prevent Ms. Notley from winning a second term. Jason Kenney, the first leader of the United Conservative Party, branded the NDP an “accidental government.”

Ms. Notley lost the 2019 election to Mr. Kenney and the 2023 campaign to Ms. Smith, although she made notable inroads in Calgary. But despite two straight losses, NDP insiders warn prospective leadership candidates against abandoning Ms. Notley’s recipe of mixing the party’s social democratic roots with its economic pragmatism.

“They will be getting pushed and pulled from all directions,” Ms. McGrath said of future leadership contenders. “There will be people who want them to move the party drastically one way or another.”

The winner of the leadership contest will immediately be elevated to Leader of the Official Opposition and could have a legitimate chance at bumping the UCP from government benches, especially as that party lists further to the right.

Marg McCuaig-Boyd, who served as Alberta’s energy minister under Ms. Notley, said the high stakes will force candidates to run on meaty platforms, rather than just catchy slogans. And she argues that their campaign pitch must be about more than party politics.

“Not just how they are going to lead the NDP, but how do they plan to become the next premier,” said Ms. McCuaig-Boyd, who is now a consultant with Counsel Public Affairs, a strategic communications firm.

To stay competitive in the next election, the new NDP leader will have to satisfy the unions that have long served as the NDP’s base of support, while broadening the party’s appeal, particularly in mid-sized cities like Red Deer, Medicine Hat and Lethbridge.

“It is going to be hard. They are going to have to remember the values that got us to where we are now, but also, we need to attract some new voters,” Ms. McCuaig-Boyd said. “Certainly there are some disenfranchised former Progressive Conservatives out there who just cannot vote for UCP.”

The NDP, in the last election, siphoned support away from the governing conservative party. The NDP made notable gains in Calgary as progressive and moderate conservatives grew weary of the right-leaning UCP.

Nathan Rotman served as Ms. Notley’s chief of staff in the latter half of her term and the NDP’s campaign manager in the 2023 election. He said he will judge the candidates with an eye on the 2027 general election, looking at who can best consolidate power in Calgary’s suburbs and make breakthroughs in rural and mid-sized communities such as Medicine Hat and Red Deer.

“New Democrats tend to aggressively agree with each other,” he said. “I don’t think it is necessarily big, significant policy changes. I think a lot of this is going to be about their retail appeal, their ability to connect with voters and their ability to go out and spend time in these communities.”

Deron Bilous served in Ms. Notley’s cabinet and now also works for Counsel Public Affairs. Ms. Notley, he said, demonstrated the NDP could be true to their values while still welcoming former PCs who identify as Red Tories.

“That’s going to be critical for the next leader if they want to form government,” Mr. Bilous said.

NDP officials have yet to hammer out the rules for the leadership race or set a date for the contest. Labour organizations affiliated with the party cast ballots weighted at 25 per cent when Ms. Notley secured the leadership in 2014.

The rules, Mr. Bilous said, could significantly influence the outcome of the leadership contest. He prefers a longer race, which he believes would generate more news coverage and interest. It would also give candidates more time to sell memberships and raise money.

Three MLAs have launched unofficial campaigns: Sarah Hoffman and Rakhi Pancholi in Edmonton and Kathleen Ganley in Calgary.

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