Her political career died with Alberta floor-crossing. Meet Danielle Smith, resurrected

Believe it or not, the conservatives that hated Danielle Smith the most for crossing from Wildrose to Tories in 2014 are the very people who now love her the most.

Harnessing Alberta's anger machine can make her UCP leader — but premier?

Danielle Smith waves to the crowd on election night in 2012, when as Wildrose leader she nearly became premier. She's approaching that goal again in the UCP leadership race. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

This column is an opinion by James Johnson, a former researcher for Alberta's Wildrose and United Conservative parties. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

Danielle Smith's return shocks many Albertans. It shouldn't.

Many think she made the unforgivable sin in 2014 when as Wildrose leader she crossed the floor with her fellow MLAs to join Jim Prentice and his Tories, who would lose to the NDP months later. After that, many politicos wrote her off and forgot about her, exiled forever.

But believe it or not, the conservatives that hated her the most then are the very people who now love her the most, and want her as UCP leader and premier.

This rekindling didn't start weeks ago. It's been in the works for years. 

Months after she was ejected from politics in 2015, she was back in the saddle rebuilding her brand with her radio show. She got back into the public conversation by hashing out issues of the day every morning, and in time conservative MPs, MLAs and even Premier Jason Kenney would join her as guests.

They helped bring her back from the political wilderness, and Albertans began to remember why she became popular as Wildrose leader in the first place. 

I worked for her for five years, and then five more for Brian Jean and Jason Kenney. I'm telling you she's back. 

The rural rock star's comeback tour

Danielle can pack a room in rural Alberta. Places you've probably never heard of. 

In 2011, I spent three weeks with her on the road, touring Alberta's villages, and towns. In Plamondon, a hamlet of 350 in Lac La Biche County, a few hundred showed up to hear her out on a weeknight in August. 

She was a conservative rock star. Ever tried to pack hundreds into a village hall to talk politics? In summer? Now she's doing it again.

Fifteen years ago, when rural property rights advocates fumed about obscure land planning laws about power lines, they were largely ignored. Danielle distilled their concerns into a simple and devastating message: the government will rip you off and take your farmland so their corporate buddies can build power lines. 

Over the course of 2010 and 2011, she packaged that type of message into political dynamite. She got within a weekend of becoming premier in the 2012 election, and the Wildrose's rural seat gains permanently fractured the Progressive Conservative dynasty. 

Danielle Smith seemed to destroy her political career in 2014, when she led a mass floor-crossing from the Wildrose Party to Jim Prentice's Progressive Conservatives, before the NDP trumped both parties in the next spring's election. Alberta conservatives seem to have forgiven or forgotten that episode, James Johnson writes. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

Danielle has mastered simple messaging. Her delivery is cheery and done with a smile. With a few anecdotes, she makes her solutions to complex problems incredibly persuasive. 

Her new slogan? Alberta First. You can disagree with it, but if Alberta isn't first, what is it? Second?

She made an early promise to ignore federal laws she didn't like. Among the many things that idea provoked, it got everyone talking about her.

COVID-19 has been a gift to her, both on the radio and in her political resurrection. While her serious talk of ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine as coronavirus treatments made polite society cringe, outsiders again found her channeling their voices. Her articulation was so clear that it left some wondering if she's a mere spokesperson or true believer. 

And now, she attracts supporters by saying "never again" on COVID lockdowns, no matter what.

She did it as well while debating the proposed Alberta provincial police, with competitors who gave perfectly rational answers on its complexity.

She instead threw down over the way the RCMP confiscated guns after the 2013 flood in High River. Sidestepping the details to slam federal malfeasance delivered an intoxicating shot of political whisky. 

Grievance, anger and short-lived victory

Danielle Smith never lets a good grievance go to waste. She created the modern anger machine in Alberta politics.

In the age of rage, the anger machine is a winning tactic but a losing strategy. Like a grocery store shopping cart, the anger machine shuts down when it gets too far from its corral. 

You can win the party with anger. You won't win government with it, as evidenced by the Wildrose party's failures to win in the big cities in 2012 and 2015.

And since Danielle packed that hall in Plamondon, the hamlet's population has shrunk by 10 per cent, to 303. Calgary and Edmonton add the population of Plamondon every week. Each.

Fueling the anger machine can also fool you into thinking you control it. Danielle learned this the hard way, and she'd fallen out with the Wildrose grassroots by the time she abandoned the party in the floor-crossing.

United Conservatives are a thirsty bunch right now, so Smith's shots of political whisky are just what members crave. Her rivals, seeing her early success, may reach for the bottles, too.

But too much of the strong stuff may leave the party sicker. Remember 2015? A political hangover is a hell of a thing.

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James Johnson

Freelance contributor

James Johnson worked as a researcher for Alberta's Wildrose and United Conservative parties for 10 years. He currently works with Alberta Counsel, a lobbying and legal firm.