Where do we go from here?
Yes, they nearly blew it. Yes, they lost seats. But Monday was nothing short of complete triumph and total dominance by the PCs. In other words - the usual.
While the PCs have never been shy about knifing successful leaders, most of the discontents have fled to the Wildrose Party, so Redford's leadership is likely safe...for now.
The challenge facing Redford is that she leads a very different PC Party than the one she inherited less than a year ago. Ted Morton and much of the rural caucus went down in defeat, and the PCs won their mandate from a vastly different coalition of voters than in 2008. If the polls are to be believed (ha ha ha!), half of all 2008 PC voters saddled up with Smith this campaign, while half of all 2008 Liberal voters jumped to Redford. In the process, the PC "base" has shifted considerably - Redford's mandate was effectively given to her by liberals. If she governs like "your father's PC Party", there's no way those voters will buy in to any kind of "Stop Smith" movement in 2016.
Of course, if she governs like a Liberal, she risks more bleeding to the Wildrose Party, who will now be staring her down in the legislature. In the past, the PCs have faced off against Liberal professors and doctors who cared more about policy than sound bytes. Now, they’ll be up against a well funded and media savvy libertarian. Gone are the days when elections could be won with a few simple chants of “NEP!” and by outspending their opponents by a factor of ten.
The Wildrose represent a new kind of opponent. The PCs have never had to worry about their right flank before, so Redford will have her hands full keeping everyone inside the PC tent happy.
Once the tears have dried, my advice to the Wildrose Party is to take a deep breath, take a vacation, and look at the big picture.
This party rose from the ground up, and won over 34% of the electorate in their first election with Danielle Smith. That's better than Peter Lougheed fared in his rookie campaign as PC leader, and it leaves the Wildrose well positioned to form government in 2016.
To do that, Smith need look no further than the path to power taken by another Albertan, Stephen Harper. After coming close in 2004, Harper regrouped, developed a plan, and came back with a vengeance in 2006, running one of the best campaigns in Canadian political history. He had a moderate and focused platform, took social issues completely off the table, and avoided the “bozo eruptions” that had doomed him two years earlier.
Smith’s challenge in the coming years is therefore to silence the extremists in her party, and present her caucus as a government in waiting. To do that, she will need to tone down the rhetoric in the legislature and moderate her positions - Smith's musings on reconsidering the party's climate change, firewall, and conscience rights positions is already a step in the right direction.
For a party that lost over half of its vote Monday night, the Liberals have actually got to be feeling pretty good about the outcome. They held 5 seats when many were predicting a shut-out, and stayed (barely) ahead of the NDP both in terms of seats and popular vote.
While the NDP would have liked to vault ahead of the Grits, they doubled their caucus to four seats, tying their best showing in 20 years. Brian Mason can stick around as leader if he wants to, but the NDP are usually pretty good about giving all their MLAs a turn as party leader so it wouldn’t surprise me if the torch is passed to Rachel Notley or David Eggen.
Of course, these feel good results mask the reality that the status quo isn’t working. With the PCs shifting under Redford, there simply isn’t enough room for both these parties to be viable on the left of the spectrum.
In an ideal world, the two would simply merge, take the Alberta Party’s name and Twitter handle, and recruit a charismatic leader from outside their current MLA ranks. The thing is, I just can’t see a situation where the membership of either the Liberals, NDP, or Alberta Party would agree to this type of arrangement. Such has always been the story among Alberta progressives, who value pride above power.
That’s not to say it’s a hopeless situation. If Redford falters, the opportunity for someone on the left to squeeze out the PCs could present itself. The 30-40% of Albertans who always voted Liberal or NDP before this last election are still around, even if many parked their vote with Redford. If someone comes along able to capture their imagination, it wouldn't be unfathomable for them to move ahead of the PCs, the same way Jack Layton vaulted ahead of the Liberals federally last spring.
I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for that to happen, but when you consider how volatile Alberta’s political climate has been of late, it would be foolish to assume there won’t be a surprise or two in the coming years.