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Two and a half months before the 2017 leadership vote for the newly merged United Conservative Party, three conservative activists met at a Tim Hortons on an August afternoon in the bedroom community of Okotoks, south of Calgary, to talk about the prospective candidacy of Jeff Callaway. One of them, a local constituency board member named Mark Hudson, was carrying an audio recorder.

He was joined by Wendy Adam and her husband Udo, who both have long histories within Alberta’s conservative politics. In a six-minute segment of audio that Mr. Hudson posted online, Ms. Adam explains that Mr. Callaway was preparing to enter the UCP leadership race, which already had two apparent front-runners in former Wildrose leader Brian Jean and the eventual winner, Jason Kenney.

“Jeff is going to run a serious campaign, but the reason that we’re running Jeff as a serious campaign is because Jeff will be able to say things about Brian Jean that Jason Kenney cannot,” said Ms. Adam, who confirmed it is her voice on the recording but otherwise declined to comment.

“It’s a kamikaze mission,” Mr. Hudson replied.

That meeting set off a series of events that boiled over this past week just as the campaign for the April 16 election was beginning, putting Mr. Kenney on the defensive at a critical moment and providing NDP Leader Rachel Notley with a fresh line of attack. Ms. Notley and her party have branded Mr. Kenney as a liar and said the whole affair reeks of cynical backroom politics that belong on House of Cards.

The audio recording sat on an obscure, anonymous YouTube account for the better part of a year before it started making the rounds on social media and left-wing news sites in December. In the three months since, the Callaway campaign has faced an investigation by the province’s election commissioner, several donors have received thousands of dollars in fines and Mr. Kenney has been forced to fend off accusations that he and the Callaway campaign worked together on a stalking-horse candidacy that was never intended to make it to the final vote. The RCMP is also looking into Mr. Callaway’s donors.

In the audio, Ms. Adam said “we’ll pull the plug" on the Callaway campaign on Sept. 15 or Sept. 20. Mr. Callaway spent two months largely focusing his efforts on attacking Mr. Jean before dropping out on Oct. 4 and endorsing Mr. Kenney.

Mr. Kenney and Mr. Callaway have denied there was a plan to run a fake leadership campaign. Mr. Kenney acknowledged the two teams kept in touch and shared information – a relationship that was documented in a cache of e-mails that were leaked last weekend – but he said there was nothing unusual about that in a leadership race.

Mr. Callaway, an investment adviser with Canaccord Genuity and former president of the Wildrose Party, has not responded to requests for an interview.

And now Mr. Kenney is facing the prospect of a four-week election campaign in which the “kamikaze candidate” will be a frequent topic of conversation.

In the early days of the campaign, Mr. Kenney appeared visibly annoyed when asked about Mr. Callaway, telling reporters he had already answered their questions. At an event held hours after the election was called, Mr. Kenney shook his head when he was asked whether it could affect the election. He responded with a simple “No" before changing topics.

The New Democrats have attempted to keep the story alive, issuing news releases and ensuring Ms. Notley brings it up in campaign speeches.

Duane Bratt, who teaches political science at Mount Royal University, said the “kamikaze candidate" story represents the first real threat to Mr. Kenney, who has been consistently ahead in polls.

Dr. Bratt said Mr. Kenney has clearly settled on a message that co-ordination between campaigns is politics as usual and voters don’t care. But he said that will work only if there are no more revelations about the case.

“If nothing else comes out between now and April 16, he’s probably right,” said Dr. Bratt. “But if more things start to drip out, then that’s when things change.”

Dr. Bratt said it opens up narrow but still difficult path to victory for Ms. Notley, who had already mounted a longstanding attack on Mr. Kenney’s character that plays into the controversy around the Callaway campaign.

“It ties into a pre-existing narrative that [Ms. Notley] has been building, that you can’t trust Jason Kenney,” he said.

The story escalated last weekend when dozens of internal UCP e-mails and other documents were leaked to reporters showing how the Callaway and Kenney campaigns worked together.

Mr. Callaway’s former campaign co-manager, Cameron Davies, is now co-operating with the election commissioner and recently sat down with investigators to describe how the two camps worked together, his lawyer confirmed. A document prepared by Mr. Davies and leaked to reporters alleged Mr. Kenney’s team first approached Derek Fildebrandt, who now leads the Freedom Conservative Party, in July, 2017, about running a “dark-horse" campaign, but decided against working with him. Mr. Fildebrandt confirmed he was approached by Mr. Kenney but said it was him who rejected the idea.

Mr. Davies alleged Mr. Kenney and several members of his campaign then met with Mr. Callaway a week later to make a similar pitch.

“It was decided our teams would work together to ensure proper narratives and messaging coincided at various stages of the campaigns,” Mr. Davies wrote in the document.

Over the next two months, the leaked e-mails show, Mr. Davies was in regular contact with Mr. Kenney’s current deputy chief of staff Matt Wolf, who passed along speaking notes, message plans, graphics and videos. Mr. Davies sent an e-mail to Mr. Wolf in August with a rough timeline that said Mr. Callaway would pull out in mid-September, adding: “depending on when the debates are, you may have other ideas?”

Mr. Davies said the two camps later met at Mr. Callaway’s home shortly after he ended his campaign for a “thank you" gathering.

Mr. Kenney confirmed he was at both events with Mr. Callaway. He said he met with Mr. Callaway in July to seek his endorsement, and when Mr. Callaway raised the idea of running himself, he told him it was a bad idea. He said he was at the second event to thank Mr. Callaway for the endorsement, even bringing a bottle of Dark Horse rye (he keeps a few bottles in his pickup truck to hand out as gifts).

The UCP has referred to various statements from Mr. Kenney and party officials insisting there was nothing improper about the two campaigns communicating.

The investigation into Mr. Callaway’s donations is also continuing through the provincial election campaign. There’s no evidence suggesting that Mr. Kenney had anything to do with financing Mr. Callaway’s leadership bid.

The province’s election commissioner received an anonymous letter late last year questioning the source of some of Mr. Callaway’s donations. Investigators have been going through the list of donors, demanding they provide proof of where the money came from, and the RCMP is also looking into it. Several donors have told The Globe and Mail they provided evidence to the election commissioner they donated their own money and weren’t contacted again.

But four people have either been fined or sanctioned by the commissioner for donating “funds given or furnished by another person.” Karen Brown was fined $3,500 in February. Last week, Darcy McAllister was fined $8,000 for donations made by him and his wife, who also received a letter of reprimand. Another donor, David Ruiz, received a letter of reprimand.