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Jason Kenney celebrates his victory as the first official leader of the Alberta United Conservative Party in Calgary, Alta., Saturday, Oct. 28, 2017.

Jeff McIntosh

Jason Kenney has easily won the leadership of Alberta's United Conservative Party, setting the stage for an unrelenting political battle with Premier Rachel Notley's NDP government to the next provincial election in 2019.

Long the presumed frontrunner, Mr. Kenney won a first-ballot victory Saturday with 61.1 per cent of the vote compared to 31.5 per cent for his chief rival Brian Jean. Third-place finisher Doug Schweitzer got 7.3 per cent support from eligible UCP members.

In a victory speech on Saturday night in a crowded convention hall in Calgary, Mr. Kenney, 49, reiterated the themes that have defined his push to become a provincial party leader since 2016. He said his win was a victory for people who have given up looking for work, and entrepreneurs "barely hanging on."

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Gary Mason: Kenney's win sets up ideological battle against Notley's NDP

"Hope is on the horizon. And common sense is coming back," he said.

"We are one step closer to a government that will stand up and defend our province from the growing attacks against our resources and our economy."

Mr. Kenney's constant message of boosting the province's still-struggling economy, controlling government deficits, and repealing the carbon tax brought forward by the NDP appealed to a broad swath of Alberta conservatives. If he becomes premier he promises a much harder line with the federal Liberals on energy policy, and other provinces that get in the way of pipeline construction – including the threat of economic blockades or trying to renegotiate the equalization formula. He capitalized on his long experience as a Harper-era cabinet minister, but his reputation as a social conservative and his combative political style has especially rattled and inflamed the governing NDP, and other political opponents including former Progressive Conservatives.

Although polls show the NDP could be vulnerable to a political challenge from the right, Mr. Kenney faces a number of hurdles in the approximately 18 months leading to the next provincial election. The UCP has yet to define detailed policy, and a convention is scheduled for the spring. UCP support is stronger in Mr. Kenney's political home turf of Calgary, and one of the UCP's main challenges will be finding candidates and members in Edmonton, where the governing NDP is more popular.

Three MLAs in Alberta's 87-seat legislature sit as independents, and three others are single members of their parties – and there remains the possibility that a stronger centrist entity will emerge to siphon off votes from both the NDP and the UCP.

Making sure the new party is united will be a priority. Tensions flared between Mr. Kenney and Mr. Jean during the leadership campaign, and at least 11 members of the UCP's 27-member caucus supported the former Wildrose leader.

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In his victory speech, Mr. Kenney singled Mr. Jean out for praise saying he was a "true champion of ordinary Albertans."

Mr. Jean didn't speak to reporters on Saturday. MLA David Schneider, a supporter of Mr. Jean's, said they are disappointed, but "it was a resounding mandate for Mr. Kenney [...] and the results show the party is stronger united."

Mr. Kenney has said his focus in governing will be on fiscal matters, and he will not legislate on hot-button social issues. But his detractors continue to be wary regarding his beliefs on issues such as gay-straight alliances (GSAs) –saying in some cases that parents should be informed when their children join – a move many say could out gay students before they are ready.

On Saturday, he appeared to make a small nod to those concerns, saying: "We don't care in this party what god you worship or who you love, what we care about as Albertans is how hard you work."

Mr. Schweitzer, who criticized Mr. Kenney's position and argued the party needs to be "socially moderate," said he is considering running for a seat under the UCP banner in the 2019 provincial election. "I want to sit down with Jason and talk about the party a little bit more," he told reporters Saturday.

A stalwart on the federal Conservative scene, Mr. Kenney announced in July, 2016 he would resign as a Calgary MP to work towards political unity on Alberta's right – "to eliminate the risk of a second NDP term which would be catastrophic to the long-term future of Alberta."

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At the time he laid out an ambitious multi-step process that had him winning the leadership of the Progressive Conservative Party, and then leading a movement to unite the PCs with the official Opposition Wildrose party. He won the PC leadership in March, 2017, and in July, Wildrose and PC members voted overwhelmingly to merge.

The United Conservative Party leadership vote was held online and by phone from Thursday morning to Saturday evening, with 63,000 eligible member voters. The party said Saturday that 94 per cent of those eligible to vote cast a preferential ballot.

Both Mr. Jean and Mr. Schweitzer's campaigns had raised concerns about the integrity of the voting process on Thursday and Friday – specifically the pin system used by voters. The party maintained that the system was sound. By Friday Mr. Jean and Mr. Schweitzer said their concerns had been addressed.

Adding to the buzz surrounding the evening was the UCP mistakenly posting the results online about 10 minutes before they were formally announced in the convention hall. Some members who had their phones out giggled and whooped even before Mr. Kenney took the stage.

Unlike Mr. Jean, Mr. Kenney does not have a seat in the legislature. He will speak to reporters about his plans going forward on Sunday afternoon in Calgary.

Speaking at the event on Saturday, Calgary Conservative MP Michelle Rempel said the reason the two parties merged is a sense among many Albertans that the provincial and federal governments are ignoring their economic concerns.

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"The result tonight is a clear mandate for Jason to go out and fight for this province," Ms. Rempel said.

"This provincial government has been put on notice today."

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