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UCP Leader Jason Kenney, fresh off by-election win, looking to recruit LGBTQ, female candidates

United Conservative Party Leader Jason Kenney reacts to winning the Calgary-Lougheed by-election in Calgary on Thursday.

Todd Korol/THE CANADIAN PRESS

As Jason Kenney continues in his quest to win the job of Alberta premier, the former Conservative federal cabinet minister says he will work to broaden his party's support in the NDP's Edmonton stronghold, and to recruit a "diverse" group of candidates including LGBTQ community members and women.

"I will be making a very deliberate effort to reach out to women candidates," he said in an interview Friday.

Mr. Kenney won a thumping victory in the Calgary-Lougheed by-election on Thursday under the four-month-old banner of his United Conservative Party (UCP), taking 71.5 per cent of the 10,852 ballots cast. The NDP and Alberta Liberal candidates won 17 and nine per cent of the vote, respectively.

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The suburban Calgary riding is a long-time conservative seat. But the resounding nature of the win gives credence to his argument that the UCP can win the spring 2019 election based on economic issues, and that Albertans don't trust the NDP government when it comes to bringing down the province's debt, or managing still-high unemployment. Mr. Kenney also harks back fondly to the federal-provincial battles of decades past, and says he will put an end to the largely cordial Ottawa-Alberta NDP relationship on energy and climate policies, with a promise to "stand up to the Trudeau Liberals and defend Alberta."

There's a lot of wind at Mr. Kenney's back. The UCP is riding high in polls after his breakneck run in four campaigns in the past year: He won the leadership of the Progressive Conservative Party in March, he campaigned successfully for the PC and Wildrose parties to merge into the UCP in July, and he took the leadership of the UCP party in October. In Thursday's by-election, he won his legislature seat with a greater share of the popular vote than combined Wildrose and PC support in the 2015 election. With centrist parties such as the Alberta Liberals and Alberta Party struggling to find support, the UCP's main competition as of now is the governing NDP.

Mr. Kenney comes from the right flank of Canada's conservative movement, with no qualms about describing the NDP as "a job-killing, socialist government." The NDP line of defence on economic and fiscal matters is that a Kenney government would cut spending to the bone, endangering the province's fragile economic recovery.

But it is on social issues where Mr. Kenney engenders the strongest reaction from his detractors.

The NDP has focused in on Mr. Kenney's argument that in some cases – subject to the judgment of school officials – parents should be informed if their children join school peer-support groups called gay-straight alliances (GSAs). This week, Mr. Kenney stood by UCP House Leader Jason Nixon when it was revealed that a B.C. human-rights tribunal ruled in 2008 that Mr. Nixon wrongly fired a female employee after she complained she was being sexually harassed by a client employing Mr. Nixon's jobsite safety firm. This lead Premier Rachel Notley to question the message Mr. Kenney was sending to women.

"At the end of the day, Jason Kenney has created a new party, but there is no new vision," Ms. Notley said in an interview this week.

"If there is anything different about what he has created, it's that he has surprised me by the continued injection of almost extreme levels of social conservatism [in his party], and his inability to bring that into line."

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The 27-member UCP caucus counts only two women, and independent Calgary pollster Janet Brown notes that women have traditionally not supported provincial conservative parties as strongly as men. On the other side, the NDP elected the first three openly gay members of the Alberta legislature, and almost half of its caucus are women.

In an interview, Mr. Kenney says he will use the holidays to "hibernate" and catch up on sleep. But with a timeline of more than a year to the next provincial election, he says he has his sights set on building constituency associations in all of Alberta's 87 ridings, policy development and meeting Ms. Notley head to head in the legislature. In the latter half of 2018, he will dedicate efforts to attracting "talented and diverse" candidates to his party.

"In our party it doesn't matter what God you worship or who you love, you're more than welcome," he said, repeating what has become a mantra. In the past, he has said he won't legislate on any hot-button social issues, and is focused on reigniting the economy, job creation and fiscal responsibility.

On finding candidates, he said his party doesn't believe in the "condescending approach" of quotas for women candidates. "We just need to reach out and invite strong Alberta women to get into the process."

When asked about outreach to the gay and lesbian community, Mr. Kenney noted that a number of gay people worked on his campaigns. "I don't accept for a second that people's politics are determined by their sexual orientation. I think it's insulting to suggest that people have monolithic views based on their sexual identity."

He acknowledges that Edmonton – where the NDP now holds all 19 provincial seats – will be a uphill challenge. But he believes he can built on strong federal Conservative support in Alberta's capital.

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"We're going to focus a lot of our time and resources and effort on the Edmonton region, because going into the next election cycle, we have a very deep base of support in other parts of the province. We want Edmonton to be at the table, and to have a strong voice – should we form government."

Mr. Kenney said he will also look to growing communities of new Canadians for support. While Alberta's recession has meant a net loss of interprovincial migrants to the once-booming province, international migration has stayed high. Alberta now has 17.1 per cent of Canada's "recent immigrants" – defined by Statistics Canada as people who obtained their landed immigrant or permanent-resident status in Canada in the past five years.

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