Battleground Alberta offers two campaigns for the price of one

“Conventional wisdom says the campaign will be won or lost in Calgary. But there’s a way to look at this in which Edmonton is key.” Political columnist Graham Thomson on a tale of two cities.

Where leaders spend their time will be telling

Watching where the leaders spend their time over the next two weeks will tell us a lot about how they think the election is going. (Leslie Kramer/CBC, Manpreet Kooner)

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is one opinion. Under the heading Opinion, we are carrying a range of different points of view on the issues facing Albertans during the current election. You can find them on our Alberta Votes 2019 page.

Is the Alberta election all about Battleground Calgary? Or is it Battleground Edmonton?

The answer lies in which election campaign you're talking about.

Conventional wisdom says the campaign will be won or lost in Calgary. But there's a way to look at this in which Edmonton is key.

When it comes to the 2019 election, there are actually two campaigns.

One is a campaign where the beleaguered NDP, trailing in the opinion polls, will defy the odds to eke out a small (perhaps minority government) victory over the United Conservative Party. That would be Battleground Calgary. That's why NDP Leader Rachel Notley is spending so much time there.

The other is a campaign where the UCP doesn't just plan to win the election with a simple majority, but is hoping to romp to a crushing victory where the NDP is virtually wiped out. That would be Battleground Edmonton. That's why Kenney has been laser-focused on the capital city for a year.

Which party leader you see in which city tells you a heck of a lot about how they think the election could play out.

Kenney wooing Edmonton

Keep in mind that to win a majority of seats, a party needs to win two out of the three segments of political Alberta — Calgary, Edmonton, and the "rest of Alberta."

Kenney has been wooing Edmonton for months.

The political courtship began in earnest last July at a UCP rally in Edmonton to celebrate the one-year anniversary of the party's founding. "You will see me a lot, here in Edmonton, because for me this is ground zero for the next election," Kenney said to enthusiastic applause.

United Conservative Party Leader Jason Kenney held a news conference in Edmonton on Monday to campaign against the carbon tax. (John Shypitka/CBC )

"We will ensure that the greater Edmonton region, the capital region of this province, will be at the centre of our strategic efforts towards and during the next election. We must fight for every seat in this city because Edmonton is a great Canadian and northern industrial city of big dreams."

When Kenney delivered that speech, the UCP had good support in Calgary and the rest of Alberta (don't call it "rural" Alberta, because it includes urban centres such as Red Deer, Lethbridge and Fort McMurray), but Edmonton remained an NDP bastion.

In his address Kenney was telling the political world he wasn't just satisfied going for a simple majority with seats from Calgary and the "rest of Alberta," he was going for a super majority by taking seats in the capital region.

Indeed, the trends in public opinion polling seem to show the UCP is well ahead in the "rest of Alberta," comfortably ahead in Calgary, and nipping at the heels of the NDP in Edmonton.

That's why Kenney officially kicked off his campaign with a rally in Edmonton on March 19, and why he's been popping up in the city like an eager jack-in-the-box.

He is pushing a message that focuses on the economy, rails against any carbon tax, promises to fight anti-oil forces, and glosses over the inflammatory social media postings of some party ex-candidates. It's a campaign that is taking no prisoners.

It is all about winning the kind of crushing majority that would be the envy of former-premier Peter Lougheed, who in the 1982 election won 75 of the legislature's then-79 seats.

Now here's campaign scenario 2.

Notley wooing Calgary

Notley seems to be growing roots in Calgary. It's there she expects/hopes/wishes for the election battle to take place. Let's look at the strategy.

It works if you assume that Notley has a comfortable hold on Edmonton and that she's competitive in Calgary. This scenario pretty much assumes that in the "rest of Alberta" the NDP is so far behind the UCP you'd need a search and rescue helicopter to find it.

Most polls put the New Democrats far back of the UCP in Calgary. But this last weekend we saw a Ekos poll indicating the NDP is in fact nipping at the heels of the UCP in Calgary.

NDP Leader Rachel Notley was in Calgary on Monday to talk about her oil-by-rail plan. (Mike Symington/CBC)

Now, polls are polls, (insert grain of salt here) and one poll does not a trend make. But this one lit up Twitter.

The poll was commissioned by the Canadian union, Unifor, and has been assailed by conservative supporters as a bought-and-paid-for pro-NDP survey. But Kenney and the UCP are not dismissing it out of hand.

They can see for themselves that Notley is campaigning as if it is accurate.

She apparently feels secure in Edmonton — she is not retrenching to the capital region to hang on to seats there. No. Notley, is gunning for Calgary.

Campaign pivot

On Monday, she held yet another news conference in the city.

Her target was the economy — specifically her plan to ship more of Alberta's oil by rail.

"Not only does moving oil by rail clear the backlog, reduce the differential, save jobs, and make a considerable profit, it sends the right signal to international investors," said Notley.

And then she, as usual, took a jab at Kenney.

"Jason Kenney's plan to cancel Alberta's rail deal will leave 120,000 barrels of oil a day in the ground, deprive Alberta of $2.2 billion in revenue and do nothing to move our resources while pipelines get built."

This is telling.

Notley's campaign — which began with her harshly calling out Kenney as a "cheat" and who "lied" about unsavoury deeds in the UCP's 2017 leadership race — has pivoted to the economy.

People I've talked to in the NDP campaign say there was a danger of the virulently anti-Kenney rhetoric drowning out Notley's more positive message about the economy. It certainly ran at odds to her message that "the politics of love, hope, and optimism always trumps the politics of anger, division and fear."

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NDP officials say, in Calgary, where the unemployment rate is above seven per cent and the vacancy rate in downtown office is around 30 per cent, the number one issue is the economy.

While issues such as Kenney's socially conservative background and the intolerant views of some of his now-ex-candidates are no doubt an issue with some voters in Calgary, the whole city is arguably much more preoccupied with the economy, jobs and pipelines.

And so it appears the NDP's strategy is to hit Kenney in his hometown by presenting a counter-platform on the issues that Calgarians care most about.

And do it with Notley front and centre.

The road ahead

The NDP might be trailing but Notley remains relatively personally popular.

The NDP is hoping she can pull up the party's popularity. Mind you, she'll need the pulling capacity of a John Deere tractor, but she's giving it a go. If Notley makes Calgary her adopted home, she believes she's still got a chance to pull victory from the jaws of defeat.

If Kenney keeps popping up Edmonton, he figures he's on the road to a super majority. And conversely, if Kenney retrenches to Calgary that means he's not feeling so secure.

Or if Notley suddenly moves back to the capital city, that means she's fighting a rear-guard action to hold on to enough seats in Edmonton to stop the NDP from being wiped out election night.

Two very different leaders.

Two very different election campaigns.

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About the Author

You can find columnist Graham Thomson's thoughts and analysis on provincial politics every Friday at cbc.ca/edmonton, on CBC Edmonton Television News and during Radio Active on CBC Radio One (93.9FM/740AM) and on Twitter at @gthomsonink.


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