You could say that the spirit of Donald Trump was in the room as former federal cabinet minister Jason Kenney launched a bid to lead Alberta's Progressive Conservative party on Wednesday.
In an obvious nod to the infamous Trump campaign caps, one supporter was sporting a red-and-white baseball cap with the slogan: “make Alberta debt-free again."
Keean Bexte — the 23-year-old founder of the University of Calgary’s Wildrose party on Campus who “kind of figured there was gonna be more people with Wildrose t-shirts here” — wore the cap alongside a green and pink Wildrose T-shirt.
So at the announcement of a leadership campaign focused on unifying Alberta’s conservatives, the cap, a symbol of what many have called most divisive major political candidate in recent memory, appeared alongside the logo of an off-shoot political party that overtook Alberta’s PCs in seats last election.
The Wildrose is now official opposition in the Alberta legislature following the NDP's stunning 2015 victory that ended 44 years of Conservative rule. The election punted the once-mighty Tories into third-party status in the province while prompting concerns that the the right-of-centre parties would need to set aside their differences and join forces if they wanted to prevent the New Democrats from winning again.
Jason Kenney wants to restore Alberta glory
Jason Kenney, now the federal MP for Calgary Midnapore, believes he's the right person to lead that charge.
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“We must fight the agenda of this accidental NDP government” lest a second term spell disaster for the province, Kenney told the crowd.
None of Kenney’s campaign regalia — buttons, flags, stickers — had a PC logo on them. It simply consisted of a stylized Alberta flag with “Unite Alberta” and Kenney’s name written on them.
Kenney said that, under the NDP, Alberta is no longer the “land of opportunity." He wants a mandate to create a unified right-wing political entity to restore Alberta to what he describes as its former glory under previous PC premiers like Ralph Klein.
“Following a crash in the price of our most important commodities, the NDP government has decided to raise taxes on employers, to support Justin Trudeau’s huge new payroll tax, [and] to kill entry level jobs by rising the minimum wage during a recession because of their ideology,” Kenney said.
He also grilled the province’s carbon tax and decision to phase-out coal-fired electricity production before saying the “ideologues” in government want to engage in social engineering by altering school curriculum.
But the focus was on uniting the right.
Conservative MP Michelle Rempel described Kenney's launch as a "spark" that sets the bar. She said that while she doesn’t know how his campaign will turn out, “if it makes people focus on the fact that we can’t just go along to get along, so be it. That’s a good thing.”
“It’s not going to be a walk in the park. My hope is that Albertans put that aside and say they want to be that beacon of hope for the rest of the country. [That they’re] not going to let the Alberta advantage slide away,” Rempel said.
To do that, Kenney said that both the PCs and Wildrose need to put “Alberta first and focus on the future.”
Previous merger attempt by Prentice and Smith failed
Other attempts to unite Alberta’s conservatives under one political banner have largely failed.
That was evident during the Wildrose floor-crossing in December 2014 when Prentice convinced party leader Danielle Smith and eight other notable Wildrose MLAs to join his caucus. Smith claimed that the socially conservative fringes of her party didn’t represent her vision. She sought to unite Alberta’s progressive-minded conservatives under one party to prevent a potential vote-split.
His tactfulness paid off in the short-term, marginalizing the Wildrose and keeping them from leadership in 2015. But the electorate swung back by electing the NDP, a party that looked more honest, more accountable, and more competent than any other that year.
The right-wing in Alberta politics has been fractured ever since.
Kenney hopes to change all that. He drew a sharp line between his plan, which he said he’d detail further on Thursday, and the Prentice-Smith debacle of 2014. He wants to do it “transparently and democratically.”
According to The Canadian Press, Smith says she’s not sure Kenney is the right candidate to appeal to urban voters.
"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 radio host.
With three years till the next election and nine months until Alberta's PCs elect their next leader, he’s got enough time to hatch a plan. But the young supporters at his announcement are already confident in Kenney’s prospects.
“It’s really exciting to have confident leadership with federal experience,” Bexte said. “This guy is the whole package. It really makes me think that amateur hour in Alberta is over.”
“Like Jason said today, this isn’t about any one person, it’s about Alberta.”
Mainly middle-aged and older white men in crowd
Kenney delivered his speech with about 20 young supporters at his back, a small minority in the crowd of mainly middle-aged or older white men.
Manning Centre Intern Alexie Simakov was part of Kenney’s youthful “human wall.” He said Kenney’s speech “hit all the right notes” and that “people resonated very well with it.”
“I think the small pockets of resistance that have popped up are generally not the most popular among centre-right conservative politics,” Simakov said. “I think so far, until a strong leader emerges, I think he does have a clear shot at the leadership.”
Nick Boots, another young supporter and vice-president of the Wildrose Shaw constituency association, was “amazed” by Kenney’s speech. He could “feel the strong spirit of unity and excitement and something new.”
Boots said if anyone can unite the right, Kenney’s the one to do it.
“People are always divided when something like a merger happens. But everybody is confident in Mr. Kenney,” Boots said.
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 current leader Brian Jean calling the shots.
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," 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 resume 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.
The Alberta Prosperity Fund — a kind of Albertan political action committee that champions lower taxes and business-friendly policies founded by former Wildrose interim leader Heather Forsyth — also endorsed Kenney for PC leadership this week.
With files from The Canadian Press
Editor's note: This article was updated at 9:51 a.m. on Aug. 28, 2018, to correct the spelling of Keean Bexte's given name.