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Alberta Liberal Party President Erick Ambtman pictured after a press conference at the Matrix Hotel in Edmonton, Feb. 1, 2011.

Jason Franson/jason franson/The Globe and Mail

To illustrate what he hopes is a changing political tide in Alberta, one opposition party president borrows a question from the world of football: is the quickest way to the end zone through the air, or on the ground?

The answer will likely determine who wins the next provincial election, with a battle brewing between rival political strategies that are revealed in annual financial statements of Alberta's political parties, released last week.

As expected, the governing Progressive Conservatives raised the most money, taking in about $5-million between their party and constituency associations. The party also had about $2.8-million in the bank at year's end, by far the biggest war chest.

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The cash and fundraising prowess prepares the PCs for, in football speak, an effective "air game" - peppering the province with advertisements, funded largely by corporate donations.

"I think it leaves us in a good position going forward," PC party president Bill Smith said.

The party's chief rival, the right-leaning Wildrose Alliance, brought in about $2.2-million - shattering the record for opposition-party fundraising but still well off the government pace.

Wildrose's strategy, however, is found on line five of their financial filing: a whopping $153,000 raised last year in party memberships alone, which cost $10 a piece. The PCs, meanwhile, brought in about $17,900 in annual memberships, which are $5.

The numbers are somewhat misleading (Wildrose sells multiyear memberships; the PCs keep only $2 from each and say they haven't yet counted the final tally) but one thing is clear - Albertans dished out much more money for Wildrose memberships last year than any other party.

Those supporters will be relied upon to put up signs, knock on doors, and help build the fledgling constituency associations for the young party. It's what Wildrose president Vitor Marciano calls his "ground game."

"The truth of the matter is we're trending in the right direction … because corporations don't knock on doors for you and they don't put up lawn signs," he said.

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Popular support sells memberships and also brings in donations - in contributions of under $375, Wildrose took in more cash than the PCs.

Where Wildrose struggles is at the constituency level. Citizens can donate to a riding association or to an overarching party. The PCs, with 67 MLAs, have a strong riding presence and outraised Wildrose four-to-one at that level.

"They [constituency associations]have done a great job," said Mr. Smith, PC party president. "We fundamentally look at our party as: we have a provincial party, but we also have 83, for lack of a better phrase, franchises."

No one knows this better than Wildrose.

"I'm not going to lie to you: our constituency associations are quite a bit poorer than PC constituency associations. Forty years [of power] We have a four-member caucus, they have 67," Mr. Marciano said, adding: "We've got a long way to go. We won't fool ourselves. We will be massively overspent in the next election."

The official opposition Liberals, meanwhile, dropped to fourth place in total fundraising, with a trim $538,000. The party has, however, retired the debt it carried for about a decade.

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"Finally, we don't need to be going into an election paying the mortgage while trying to buy a new house," Liberal president Erick Ambtman said.

The New Democrats came in third place with about $770,000 in total fundraising. However, the party is still half a million dollars in debt, which it hopes to pay off by fall with an aggressive fundraising campaign.

"We've been feeling a little bit of an updraft under our wings. Our supporters have always been really good," said party leader Brian Mason, one of two NDP MLAs.

Parties may see a sag in fundraising this year. With the Liberals and PCs in leadership races and a federal race under way, donors may be tapped out. But all parties are in election mode already.

"Democracy is wonderful," Mr. Marciano said, "but it requires money to feed it."

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Josh is a parliamentary reporter in Ottawa. Before moving to the nation's capital in 2013, he covered provincial affairs in Edmonton and throughout Alberta. He joined the Globe in 2008 in Toronto before returning to his home province in 2010. More

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