Seven months ago, Danielle Smith had arrived as a star of Alberta politics – her upstart Wildrose Party was soaring in the polls, flush with cash and hammering away at unpopular Premier Ed Stelmach. She had her sights set on his job.
That rapid ascent, however, has left her fate unclear and the party in transition at a critical time in its history. Its success is its problem. As it mounts a campaign-style event schedule with a potential fall election in the offing, Ms. Smith is struggling to hold her burgeoning movement together.
The party's president, vice-president of policy, executive director, chief strategist, treasurer, constituency association co-ordinator, chief corporate fundraiser, constituency strategist and other officials – a total of at least 14, including Ms. Smith's longtime assistant – have quit, been fired, moved or stepped down this year, The Globe and Mail has learned.
Meanwhile, the party is facing slumping polls as well as questions about its finances and spending habits, casting doubt on what sort of war chest it could muster if a general election were called.
Many who have left remain supporters. Others have returned to Mr. Stelmach's Progressive Conservative Party, and now offer partisan critiques of Ms. Smith's iron-fisted style. One left politics and the province altogether.
"Turnover is healthy when you're growing a party," Ms. Smith told The Globe.
Regardless of its officials' reasons for leaving, Wildrose is caught retooling on the fly as the PCs prepare to crown a new leader and, possibly, call the snap fall election. Some, such as the chief of staff and new executive director, are doing double duty, also running as candidates.
"I got no sense that there was any discord within the party. I did get a sense the party was growing so fast it created organizational problems," said David Heyman, a one-time Stelmach spokesman hired by Wildrose in February to develop campaign plans for all 87 ridings. He was let go in July with about 30 ridings completed to free up salary, but remains a supporter of Ms. Smith. "My sense was that the initial popularity outstripped the party's ability to manage everybody."
Wildrose raised $1.8-million in 2010, shattering the previous record for an opposition party, but spent all but $300,000. It has continued to tear through cash this year, at a rate of about $140,000 a month. After Mr. Stelmach's January adieu, however, some say donations and membership sales sank.
In March, the party was warned by treasurer Richard Wilkie (roundly described as tight-fisted) that the "bank balance will be reaching a critically low level, very soon," according to an e-mail obtained by The Globe and confirmed by Mr. Wilkie. Mail-out campaigns were "almost totally dry," he wrote.
Rather than the party necessarily being broke (though it is seeking a line of credit), Mr. Wilkie's e-mail reveals Ms. Smith's spend-to-win strategy is at odds with the fiscal hawks with whom she built the Wildrose brand.
"Their goal was always to have a full-year's operating in the bank, and it drove Danielle batty because there was no money to spend," said Stephen Carter, Wildrose's one-time chief strategist, who left to run a PC leadership campaign but remains a friend of Ms. Smith. "Because these guys were so conservative, you couldn't get them to pry a nickel loose."
Ms. Smith calls it all growing pains for a party that can't, unlike top PC cabinet ministers, travel the province on the government tab. Even without an election, the party has budgeted $1.7-million in spending this year (roughly quadruple what the Official Opposition Liberals spent in 2010), but Ms. Smith predicts they'll raise more than $2-million this year and "blow away" their 2010 fundraising totals.
"This is what political parties do," Ms. Smith, who is not an MLA, said while door-knocking this week in Mr. Stelmach's riding on the final day of her three-week Alberta tour. "If anybody thought we were somehow going to be able to do this without spending money, then they weren't listening to me when I said I was serious. I'm serious about forming government."
A poll last month showed Wildrose's support had collapsed to 16 per cent, though will likely rebound once the PCs pick a leader. Nevertheless, some have fled. "The Wildrose is dropping like a rock. That's not a blip. That's not an aberration," Mr. Wilkie said.
Ms. Smith dismisses Mr. Wilkie's claims as five months old. She cited recent staff hires, billboards, the tour and a sold-out 200-seat fundraising dinner last week at an Edmonton steakhouse as evidence of a party collecting and spending as if it were in a campaign.
The party just reached 25,000 paid members and claims to have raised $100,000 over the past week, though it offers no evidence of that. It recently completed a $20,000 targeted fundraising drive for the tour. It's also leaning on its constituency associations to raise money, asking for as much as $21,600 each for the purchase of election supplies, according to its election readiness kit, a copy of which was obtained by The Globe. Last year, the fledgling associations raised an average of about $4,800 each.
The party also lost money – $93,000 by one estimate – on its glitzy annual general meeting at a Calgary convention centre, which suffered from low attendance. Ms. Smith wouldn't confirm or deny the figure, acknowledging it lost money but insisting it was worthwhile because of the exposure it generated.
"I would say they are running on fumes," said former corporate fundraiser Pat Walsh, fired by Wildrose in March and now working with the PCs.
"Political parties are expensive to run. We do need more money, there's no doubt," retorted Hal Walker, a Wildrose past-president who remains supportive of the party. "We're doing well in our fundraising."
Amid the turnover, it's obvious Wildrose isn't penny pinching. However, even if it is spending within its means, another problem persists: the spending is driving some away.
Financial planner Stephen Maser was once a southern region director for the party and was attracted by its grassroots, small-government mantra. However, members were "left out of the loop" by caucus on spending decisions, he said. Disenchanted by a party that couldn't manage itself as it aspired to govern, he left politics altogether, taking a job in British Columbia.
"My biggest problem was a lack of governance," he said in a phone interview, adding Ms. Smith and her caucus weren't running the growing party smoothly. "She has potential, but she's in no way prepared to be premier."
ELSEWHERE IN ALBERTA POLITICS
The PC Leadership
The first ballot in a race that began in January is now only five weeks away. Six people are vying for the Progressive Conservative crown, and the winner will immediately become the premier. The field includes four candidates from the party's progressive wing – notably presumed front-runner Gary Mar, who has a prominent federal Liberal on his team – and two from the conservative wing. If no one candidate has 50 per cent of the votes, as almost surely will be the case, the top three will got to a second, preferential ballot two weeks later. In 2006, Ed Stelmach finished third on the first ballot but ended up winning.
One week before the ruling Progressive Conservatives cast their first ballot, the Official Opposition Liberals will select their own leader. In the running are two veteran MLAs, a Calgary union leader, a former party official and a PC-turned-Independent MLA, self-styled health-care whistleblower Raj Sherman. Dr. Sherman is considered to have the lead. Meanwhile, Liberal brass have signed up thousands of new members and think they can win seats in an election if Wildrose is strong enough to take votes away from the PCs, but too weak to win.
The next election
It's anyone's guess, but both Wildrose and the two-member New Democrat caucus are preparing for a vote as soon as October. Two of the six PC leadership candidates don't have seats, so if one of them wins, a by-election or general election would be needed quickly. Meanwhile, the PCs are soaring in the polls and have a large war chest. The only question is whether they can mobilize fast enough for an election – if they can, many expect it in the late fall. However, the new premier could wait as late as early 2013.