It's the size of the wave that can't be ignored. Stephen Harper's Conservatives aren't immediately being threatened by the NDP taking over their Alberta turf – but they have to start worrying.
Now, the Conservatives have to at least be concerned that a new front might be opening in Alberta, a place where in the past they rarely had to expend resources to win seats. And Tuesday night's lesson was that it's best to be humble about your support.
The Conservatives aren't exactly sweating about losing any big chunk of their Alberta seats, but they're suddenly realizing the provincial NDP breakthrough could put a number of them – especially in Edmonton – at risk. Even Calgary East MP Deepak Obhrai, who won with 67 per cent of the vote in 2011, acknowledged he has to think twice now that his local MLAs are all New Democrats.
In the past, Alberta was a place where Mr. Harper's party could safely scoop up donations that could be spent on campaigning in Ontario, where the leader's tour only had to make courtesy calls, and where campaign strategy could be casual. Now it requires a rethink. Time to dust off those contingency plans for competitive Alberta races, or maybe write some. Even for the Conservatives, with more money and resources than their opponents, that means diverting resources from elsewhere.
That's true even if Thomas Mulcair is still no Rachel Notley. Mr. Mulcair beamed with glee over the Alberta NDP's victory when he met his own MPs in Ottawa on Wednesday. He should – it's good for him. But it wasn't his victory.
In fact, even Ms. Notley, who won over Albertans in surprising fashion, has to thank a throw-the-bums-out movement that was years in the making and fuelled by the miscalculations of Jim Prentice's Conservatives.
The PCs were rotting for a long time. Albertans had come to see them as cynically interested only in holding power. Mr. Prentice, a nice, capable, mild-mannered man, managed to remind people of that by luring Wildrose's then-leader Danielle Smith and a chunk of her caucus to cross the floor, his un-contrite look-in-the-mirror comment about Alberta's fiscal situation, and an unpopular budget. It was like he was trying to tell Albertans they had no choice. What are they going to do, vote NDP? Ms. Notley made Albertans embrace the notion.
There isn't the same dynamic at the federal level. Mr. Harper gets credit for bringing Alberta influence to Ottawa. The Alberta NDP ran a decidedly centrist campaign, and tried to appear less opposed to oil pipelines than Mr. Mulcair's federal party.
Ms. Notley kept her distance from Mr. Mulcair, and kept doing so even after she was elected, in a press conference on Wednesday: She said she respected him as a federal leader but her job is to focus on Alberta.
So why is Mr. Mulcair smiling? An NDP government in power makes voting for the party seem less scary. In Edmonton, New Democrats won by huge margins. The pool of people open to voting NDP just got a lot bigger. The NDP will actually have a ground organization in some of those ridings now.
But more importantly for the NDP, they gained some credibility as a party that can still gain seats. In Alberta, they can plausibly claim to have the best shot – better than the Liberals – of beating Mr. Harper's Conservatives.
And that narrative will ripple across the country. They worry that Justin Trudeau's Liberals are ahead of them in the polls, and garner more media attention. Now Mr. Mulcair can claim his NDP have some momentum. That's a big deal. They know many left-leaning voters want to pick the party most likely to turf Mr. Harper.
At one level, Mr. Harper's Conservatives like that kind of competition. They want the NDP and Liberals to split the vote evenly, so they can win more seats. Unless, of course, voters coalesce behind the NDP in places like Edmonton, and take Tory seats.
One way or another, it's too much of a wave for Mr. Harper's Conservatives to shrug off.
Ms. Notley will probably play nice, because she needs to reassure Albertans. But Mr. Harper can't count on her for the kind of call-and-response message to Albertans he could expect from the PCs.
And suddenly, the Conservatives could actually lose ground in rock-solid Alberta, which grows from 28 to 34 ridings in this fall's election – when even a handful of seats could make the difference between winning and losing. They can't afford to do anything but start fighting, and planning for real campaigning, expending money and effort on a new front, in Alberta.