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Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley makes a campaign stop in Calgary on April 11, 2019.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

The provincial election campaign in Alberta is quietly on, even if it hasn’t officially begun. The legislature will rise before the end of this month. The Alberta NDP and the United Conservative Party are wrapping up their nominations and, as of this week, both have their campaign managers lined up.

The two parties are essentially neck-and-neck in levels of support, and it’s still possible that either party could win on election day, May 29. There are two well-known Alberta political leaders going up against one another. Late last year, the polls favoured the NDP’s Rachel Notley, who served as premier for four years before her party lost in 2019. More recently, UCP Leader Danielle Smith – the current premier – has the wind at her back.

Ms. Smith wants to keep the premier’s office and Ms. Notley wants her old job back. Whichever way the story of the coming election is framed, a key question is whether the Alberta NDP can do what they haven’t been able to do before – win against a united right. In this 2023 election, the NDP needs to flip a large number of the 26 seats in Calgary to have a chance at winning. In a nod to how big a battleground Calgary is, both parties will locate their primary campaign headquarters here.

The NDP has a stronger slate of candidates than in past years, and they have an unprecedented amount of cash to run ads and a broader campaign. The NDP also said Thursday they will turn to trusted adviser Nathan Rotman – a former national director for the federal party and a former chief of staff to Ms. Notley – as campaign manager. Mr. Rotman will be taking a leave from his job as a policy lead for Airbnb for the campaign period.

Steve Outhouse, the veteran political strategist who hails from the socially conservative side of the movement, has already been named as campaign manager for the UCP. Mr. Outhouse ran the two federal leadership campaigns for Leslyn Lewis.

When the NDP won office in 2015, Alberta voters were grumpy – they were frightened by an approaching tide of bad economic news, and tired of entitled Progressive Conservatives cycling through a series of leaders in an attempt to hold on to their long-in-the-tooth Alberta political dynasty.

But the last time Ms. Notley won an Alberta election, conservatives were in the throes of battling among themselves, with the movement split into the PC and Wildrose parties. In 2019, by contrast, they got trounced by the United Conservatives led by Jason Kenney.

The UCP divisions flared again under his leadership and the multiple challenges of the pandemic. Crucially in her few months as leader, Ms. Smith has been able to keep a lid on internal strife going public. (Mr. Outhouse’s advantage, in this regard, might be that he is an outsider. Mr. Outhouse describes himself on Twitter as “a Nova Scotian living in Ottawa.” Mr. Outhouse didn’t play any role in the infighting that saw Mr. Kenney leave office last year.)

But this is what the NDP has going for it: Ms. Notley is viewed as likeable and trustworthy by many Albertans, including some who would refer to themselves as conservatives. Her leadership has changed Alberta political history: Before the moment in May, 2015, when her party won that election, no one in the province could really fathom a government where the NDP was in charge.

In this campaign, Ms. Notley’s party will argue that Ms. Smith doesn’t have good judgment, and spends too much of her time trying to placate the most conservative elements of her party. They will focus on strengths such as health care rather than “fighting for the sake of fighting,” which has been the NDP framing of the UCP strategy. They will contrast their positions, such as their commitment to universal access to free prescription contraception while the UCP focuses on adoption measures.

Gary Mason: In Calgary, Rachel Notley gears up for the fight of her life

The UCP is now trying to soften Ms. Smith’s image – trying to present her as a less radical, more mainstream conservative. She’s not talking about vaccine rights or Alberta autonomy as much as she was in 2022. In that vein, the UCP was handed an unexpected gift early this year from the federal Liberals – in Ottawa’s push for Just Transition/Sustainable Jobs legislation to be introduced this year

The federal plan appeared egregious enough – or at least the way the UCP was able to frame it – that Ms. Smith and her party looked to many Albertans that they were on the right side of the argument, and had good reason to be kicking up a fuss. People are tired of fights for the sake of the fight. But voters still want a premier who will take issue with a barrage of federal energy and climate policies from Ottawa that have a disproportionate effect on the economy of the province.

In this strange environment where the Alberta economy is relatively strong while cost-of-living anxiety is high, the UCP will be making the case that they’re more trustworthy when it comes to money matters. The troublesome economic times of 2015-19, no matter how much they were a result of commodity prices and not the governing of the NDP, will be a period the UCP will bring up again and again. The governing party’s budget last month wasn’t a barn burner, it was a relatively boring document unlikely to make waves during the election campaign.

Momentum for the parties will move up and down before May. But for the NDP, they cannot rely on conservatives fighting among themselves – or a clear division on the right – to give them a leg up.