Alberta Premier Danielle Smith is set to trigger an election on Monday, squaring off against Rachel Notley’s New Democratic Party in a race that is especially competitive in the province’s largest city.
The governing United Conservative Party and the opposition NDP have been campaigning for weeks, although personality, rather than policy, has dominated the contest so far. Ms. Smith’s critics paint her as unpredictable and under the thumb of the right flank of the UCP, while doubters of the former premier, Ms. Notley, frame her as an enemy of the oil and gas industry on which Alberta’s economic prosperity depends.
Voters go to the polls on May 29, and the outcome will largely be decided in Calgary, where observers expect the UCP to lose some – but not all – support.
“Albertans know both leaders in a way that we maybe haven’t before,” said Annalise Klingbeil, a consultant at Champion Communications & PR and former NDP staff member. “The two people are very different.”
Edmontonians are largely expected to stand behind the NDP, while rural voters are poised to deliver for the UCP. Smaller urban centres have a few seats in play, but both parties are focusing on the sweepstakes in Calgary. It hosts 26 ridings, of which the UCP claimed 23 in 2019. Polls in the city are too tight to predict whether the expected shuffle will be enough to change the balance of power.
Mandi Johnson, a consultant at Crestview Strategy and former UCP staff member, does not think the electoral math favours the NDP, even as observers expect voters in Calgary to punish the government.
“It is a monumental task in Calgary for Notley to win enough seats to become premier again,” she said.
Ms. Smith last week introduced the UCP’s first major policy, aimed directly at luring voters in the city. If the UCP wins, she said the government will spend $330-million to help build a new $1.2-billion arena complex in the downtown. The latest version of the deal, however, drove up the price tag for the city, while the wealthy Calgary Flames ownership group’s upfront obligation plummeted.
Ms. Notley and the NDP neither supported the deal nor shot it down. Instead, the leader said she needs to see more details to determine whether it is a good idea.
Ms. Johnson and Ms. Klingbeil agree that the parties will both try to make the election about trust. The NDP is pitching itself as the most capable in terms of health care and education, while the UCP is expected to focus on public safety and affordability.
On Sunday, Chelsae Petrovic – a UCP candidate in Livingstone-Macleod, a rural riding in southern Alberta – apologized for unspecified offensive comments she made on social media. The NDP have been using such stumbles as evidence Ms. Smith’s party is unfit for office.
The UCP, which formed in 2017 and won its first election in 2019, struggled to retain broad support and internal party unity during the COVID-19 pandemic. Large swaths of voters in Alberta, meanwhile, remain skeptical of the NDP, frequently blaming Ms. Notley for the economic downturn that coincided with her four years in the Premier’s Office.
Both Ms. Smith and Ms. Notley have been in the public sphere for years.
Ms. Smith led the Wildrose Party in 2012, when the splinter movement lost to the Progressive Conservatives. In 2014, she led a mass floor crossing to join government benches, leaving the Wildrose in shambles. Local PC supporters in her riding then selected another person to represent them in the 2015 election. Ms. Smith subsequently retreated from politics, but returned to the public eye as a talk radio show host.
Ms. Notley, meanwhile, was first elected to the legislature in 2008 and won the NDP leadership race in 2014. She then led the party to victory in the 2015 election, ending the PC’s 43-year grip on power. Jason Kenney, who served in the cabinet of former prime minister Stephen Harper, argued Ms. Notley’s victory was a result of the PC and Wildrose parties splitting the ballot, and he engineered a plan to unite conservatives in Alberta. The subsequently established UCP, under Mr. Kenney’s leadership, jettisoned Ms. Notley and the NDP from government in 2019.
Last year, after Mr. Kenney resigned as premier, Ms. Smith won the UCP leadership contest to replace him by campaigning on COVID-19 grievances and a promise to stand up to Ottawa.