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Alberta NDP leader Rachel Notley campaigns in the election battleground of Calgary, on May 5.Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

Hours before votes were tallied in the last two provincial elections, New Democratic Leader Rachel Notley stole a moment of calm on her best friend’s porch. In the neighbourhood of Old Strathcona, with hot tea in their hands, they sat in comfortable quiet or gossiped about the neighbours.

There was no talk of politics or what might happen that night – in 2015, a roaring victory; four years later, crushing defeat. Now, Ms. Notley is fighting to return to Alberta’s highest office, and she knows the odds aren’t on her side.

While polls for the May 29 election have the NDP and the United Conservative Party, led by Danielle Smith, within a razor-thin margin of one another, it’s almost unheard of, in any province, to be re-elected as premier after serving as the Official Opposition leader.

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Rachel Notley on May 12.Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

Political experts, however, say this election will not be won on policy but on a question of leadership. And Ms. Notley is the NDP’s best asset, often polling more popular than her party. She bites back at rivals who label her anti-pipeline or a puppet of her federal counterpart Jagmeet Singh and Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. “Look at my record,” she says time and time again – a record that includes accomplishing what no other Alberta leader has done since Ralph Klein resigned in 2006: serve a full term.

“The NDP’s capacity to offer up a leader who people have seen in government, who people have seen in Opposition, who people have seen in political life for 15 years – it does offer that predictability and stability that I think a lot of people are looking for,” she said.

Reflecting on past elections, Ms. Notley said the 2015 race against the Progressive Conservatives led by Jim Prentice focused on how each leader would shelter Alberta from a nosediving economy. After winning that election and governing through a tough four years in which the province experienced a prolonged dip on the resource roller coaster, the NDP was forced to, in her words, “play defence” in 2019. That contest was a sharp clash of personalities between the steady and likeable Ms. Notley and the political machine that was Jason Kenney.

But the contrast between leaders is even more profound this time, said Ms. Notley, who calls Ms. Smith a risky and unpredictable choice.

There’s also an intensity to this election that hasn’t been felt before, brought on by the devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic, a health care system in collapse and an increasingly divisive society, said Michele Jackson, who has been friends with Ms. Notley for 20 years and has served in a variety of roles for the provincial NDP for just as long.

She said it weighs on Ms. Notley – but is also the fuel that keeps the leader going.

A campaigner at heart, Ms. Notley knows how to stay grounded during the gruelling 28-day election crusade. She goes on a daily run – a habit that replaced smoking cigarettes in her 30s – listens to music or flips through pages of a book during her downtime (there’s not much).

“Head down. Get it done,” is how Ms. Notley tackles each day. “When you finally pull your head up again and look around, you’ll be very surprised by what you’ve been able to achieve.”

Ms. Notley, 59, was born in Edmonton but grew up in rural Alberta near Fairview, and worked as a labour lawyer before entering politics. Her dad, the late Grant Notley, was NDP leader for 16 years – a role she would take on in October, 2014, during her second term as an MLA.

During her rookie term, she was one of only two sitting members of the NDP. Ms. Notley told the Edmonton Journal that she drove then-leader Brian Mason “bananas” with questions on her first day. “He finally had to kick me out of the office to calm me down.”

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Alberta NDP leader Rachel Notley is hitting the campaign trail hard in the last two weeks before the provincial election.Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

Ms. Notley was a natural at politics from the moment she was elected, said Ms. Jackson, who dismisses any notion that her adeptness was the product of growing up in a political household. “It was innate.”

Still, 15 years after Ms. Notley first took her seat in the Alberta Legislature, she says those nerves of the early days sometimes creep back in when she steps up to a podium to give a speech.

So what’s the trick to getting rid of those butterflies? Practice. And that is something she learned from her father.

“My dad, who was widely known as an exceptionally eloquent speaker, actually suffered from the same challenges and used to have to practise, practise, practise, practise for hours in front of a mirror,” Ms. Notley said.

“Get used to something, push yourself past your comfort zone, and then ultimately you can become comfortable.”

During Ms. Notley’s victory speech after becoming NDP Leader, she told Albertans they would need to choose between the past and the future in the next election. “Let’s not repeat history. Let’s make history,” she said. The NDP had just four seats going into the 2015 provincial race.

In the final week of that campaign, it became clear the party needed to plan a victory celebration, Ms. Jackson said. “Everyone’s flying in a million different directions trying to organize an event with all these people and Rachel’s going, ‘Holy crap – I’m going to be premier.’”

The NDP won a majority government with 53 seats, ending a 44-year Progressive Conservative dynasty and putting into power a left-leaning party for the first time in nearly 80 years.

Ms. Notley governed through a recession, roadblocks to pipeline development and slumping oil prices that wiped out tens of thousands of jobs. The NDP created a carbon tax, raised corporate income taxes and introduced farm safety legislation that brought tractor-led protests to the legislature. It also raised the minimum wage, piloted a $25-a-day daycare program and played an integral role in getting Ottawa to buy the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.

But then came the 2019 election against the newly formed UCP. The NDP lost in a landslide, reduced to just 24 seats.

It was then that Ms. Notley contemplated hanging up her orange Fluevogs and leaving politics. It was Mr. Kenney that pulled her back, she said.

“If he hadn’t decided to demonize everybody who disagreed with him, then I may not have felt the need to stay. He got my back up.”

After four years in opposition, Ms. Notley now faces a tough task. In order to secure victory this time, she must attract not only undecided voters but conservatives who once supported her old rival.

She argues that Ms. Smith has abandoned the values of progressive conservatives and is deeply connected to the fringe elements of the conservative movement. And with a parade of old videos resurfacing – and Ms. Smith’s past statements haunting her campaign – it’s a message Ms. Notley hammers home whenever she can.

With a little more than two weeks left until election day, Ms. Notley said the focus is getting the word out to as many voters as possible.

Then, with the flurry of campaigning behind her once again, she will steal a few moments before polls close on her best friend’s porch, to await what’s to come.

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