Jason Kenney has confirmed he is leaving federal politics to try to unite the right in Alberta in a bid to fend off another "catastrophic" NDP victory in his home province.
"The Progressive Conservative and Wildrose parties must put Alberta first," the MP told a cheering crowd of supporters in Calgary as he launched his long-rumoured campaign to lead the Alberta Progressive Conservative Party.
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"We must put Alberta first and we must focus on the future not the past, what unites us not what divides us, we must come together to form a single free-enterprise party and we must do so before the next election. Because to coin a phrase, Albertans can't wait," he said.
"That is why I've decided to seek the leadership of the Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta, seeking an explicit mandate: to unite with the Wildrose Party and all like-minded Albertans so we can defeat the NDP and put this province back on the right track."
Speculation had been swirling for months that the long-time lieutenant of former prime minister Stephen Harper might make the move. He had recently renewed his provincial PC membership and popped up at events around the province.
"We must do everything in our power to eliminate the risk of a second NDP term, which would be catastrophic to the province of Alberta," Kenney said.
Opposition Wildrose party leader Brian Jean said the PCs will have work to do to make a merger happen.
"As we have always said, we welcome all conservatives devoted to building unity. However, over the next year, the PC party will be involved in a divisive battle as they debate their stated pledge at their recent AGM to go it alone," Jean said in a statement.
"It would be wrong to speculate further on the leadership race for the third party until this is resolved."
Notley won't be distracted
Alberta Premier Rachel Notley said she won't be distracted by the race on the right.
"Certainly a lot of political watchers will find themselves some extra stuff to watch this summer, people even in my party, but for me personally as the premier, my focus is going to be solely on continuing the work that I've been elected to do," she said.
Commenting on the number of right wing parties in the province that Kenney hopes to unite, Notley said the 2019 election will be heavily based on party records.
"However many conservative leaders and conservative parties may be involved in that election ... is less my concern than having a record that I am proud of, and proud to present to Albertans," she said.
The Alberta PC party president says she expects other candidates will join the race.
"I can't talk about [Kenney's] candidacy, but what I can say is it will definitely bring a lot of interest back to the party and what the party's been up to since the election," Katherine O'Neill said.
Targeting 'free enterprise' Albertans
Kenney began his speech by listing what he says are the conservative principles that motivate him and have laid the foundation for Alberta's prosperity — rule of law, free enterprise, balanced budgets and reduced tax burdens.
"I say these things because I want to start at the beginning," he said. "I say to you, these are my first principles."
Until the rumours of his planned foray into Alberta politics recently began circulating, Kenney was considered the front-runner in the race to be the next federal Conservative Party leader.
A merger of Alberta's two right-of-centre provincial parties will be challenging, but Kenney has relevant experience — he helped unite the federal Canadian Alliance and Progressive Conservative parties in 2003, forming the Conservative Party of Canada.
The provincial PCs got clobbered in the May 2015 Alberta election and the NDP ended the party's more than four-decade run in government. The fractured right-of-centre vote contributed to that stunning outcome.
Former Wildrose leader Danielle Smith had tried to merge the right in 2014, when she led a mass floor crossing from the Wildrose to the PCs.
That manoeuvre backfired, with most of the floor-crossers going down to defeat in either the subsequent PC nomination battles or in the provincial election.
Kenney faces uphill battle
Smith said she's not sure Kenney is better positioned to carry off a merger, partly because he is both a social conservative and a fiscal one.
"The question is, will conservatives choose someone conservative on both fronts? I put his chances at 50/50. He's a fantastic speaker. Will it be enough?"
"It's going to be an uphill battle for him … because of some of the positions that he has taken on conservative social issues in the past," said Smith, who is now a talk radio host.
The PCs have said they aren't keen to merge, while the Wildrose has said it would be happy to link up, but only under its banner and with Leader Brian Jean calling the shots.
The Tory leadership job has been vacant since Jim Prentice, also a former cabinet minister, quit after leading the party to a third-place finish in the last provincial election. Party members pick a new leader next March 18.
Troy Wason, the Calgary vice president of the PC Association of Alberta, says Kenney's run for the top spot, could spark a debate about what it means to be conservative.
"It will be up to the membership to decide what does that look like. So when other candidates come out they will have their vision. So this is just one vision. So that's what it means today is that it starts the talk," Wason said.
Former MLAs say Kenney has what it takes
Two former MLAs who crossed the floor with Smith — Rob Anderson and Bruce McAllister — say they believe Kenney has what it takes to unite Alberta's right, and bring conservatives back into power.
Anderson, who crossed from the Tories to the Wildrose and back again, said the ground is more fertile for a merger now than it was in 2014.
When you stare socialism in the face for a year, it kind of wakes you up.-Former MLA Rob Anderson
"When you stare socialism in the face for a year, it kind of wakes you up," said Anderson.
McAllister, who was narrowly defeated by the Wildrose in the last election, said Kenney will have to overcome the "tribalism and self-preservation" in some factions of Alberta politics.
"Leadership is crucial to putting like-minded Albertans back together and, if you look at Mr. Kenney's resumé and his body of work, he has garnered respect everywhere he has gone and he has not shied away from difficult and complex issues," said McAllister, who has a communications and consulting business.
It is unclear whether Kenney will vacate his federal seat while attempting to be the next leader of a new conservative movement in Alberta.
'Proud Albertan, tireless campaigner'
Federal Conservative Party interim leader Rona Ambrose says she wishes Kenney all the best.
"As Jason embarks on this new challenge, I know he has the best interests of Albertans in his heart. Jason is a steadfast defender of conservative principles, a proud Albertan, a tireless campaigner and a fighter for ordinary Canadians from all walks of life. More than that, he is a trusted friend and a valued member of the federal Conservative caucus and team," she said.
Calgary Nose Hill MP Michelle Rempel, who differs with Kenney on some social issues, said today's announcement could be the start of something big.
"It's not going to be a walk in the park all the time. There are concerns, there are personalities, but my hope is Albertans put that aside and unite," Rempel said.
"I think this was a spark today."
Kenney urged the crowd in Calgary not to view Wildrose supporters as adversaries.
"They are the voters who helped to keep the PC governments in office for the better part of four decades. They are our family. We are all family together," he said.
Kenney said Wildrose Leader Brian Jean has assured him that he is open to unifying the two parties.
"But they need a willing dance partner," he said.
'Pretty hollow candidate'
Sandra Jansen, the MLA for Calgary-North West, says Kenney's social conservatism will be at odds with some members of the party.
"If you look at the comments he has made [on abortion, LGBT and education issues] are concerning for a lot of folks who are socially progressive like myself," Jansen said.
"He's running to be the leader of a party he's trying to dismantle. It's an interesting strategy — one that I will fight with a lot of people to make sure he's not successful at," she said.
"He's not reaching out to any folks I know to have a talk about shared values, and when the only thing you stand for is an attempt to regain government, then you are a pretty hollow candidate with a pretty hollow goal."
Delegated convention means 87 political battles
Tom Flanagan, a former senior adviser to Stephen Harper and former campaign manager for Alberta's Wildrose Party, said Kenney is taking on a big challenge.
"It's not just a case of selling memberships — this is going to be a delegated convention. So that he has to build a strong field organization that can wage political battles in 87 different ridings to elect delegates to the convention. It's a big organizational job and there's not a lot of time to do it," he said.
But if Kenney wins the PC leadership, he would have huge momentum, Flanagan said.
"If he then goes to Wildrose and asks to negotiate a merger of the two parties, it's going to be tough for Wildrose to refuse to discuss it."
With files from The Canadian Press