EDMONTON – After more than four decades in power, it was almost a foregone conclusion that Jim Prentice was going to lead the Progressive Conservatives to another majority government in Alberta. He called the election early on April 7, 2015. Twenty-eight days later he quickly resigned after a stunning defeat to Rachel Notley and the NDP.
“I knew at the beginning of the campaign that it was going to be a major growth campaign,” Sally Houser told Global News as the one-year anniversary of the election approached. Houser served as the press secretary for Notley during the campaign.
On the first day, Notley told the media that she wasn’t running to finish in second place; her intention was to become premier. It’s something you have to say publicly, but even Houser admitted the campaign didn’t truly believe it would happen.
“Whether we had dared to hope and dream that the NDP would form government, and that Rachel would be premier, that might be a little revisionist history to say that we were all there.”
The party ran on a platform of increasing taxes on corporations and wealthy Albertans, reviewing whether the province was getting its fair share in royalty revenues, and maintaining funding for core services like healthcare and education. As the campaign wore on, party officials could sense Albertans were giving them a serious look.
Houser recalled the first time she felt they were going to win was just a couple of weeks before the vote. The campaign scheduled an outdoor barbecue in Red Deer. The day arrived, and it was snowing; the temperature was below freezing.
“I’m not going to lie, we were kind of a little nervous that maybe the turnout wasn’t going to be so great at an outdoor event, but there was about 150, 175 people that turned out in Red Deer, not an area of traditional NDP support.”
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By contrast, Jim Prentice and the Progressive Conservatives were saddled with one distraction after another, and a mounting anger towards the decades-old dynasty.
“When he got into the election a year early, people felt betrayed. They felt like he was trying to take advantage of the situation, catch people off guard,” said Danielle Smith, the former Wildrose leader who attempted to merge the two parties by crossing the floor to the PCs.
It didn’t help that, just a few weeks before calling the election, Prentice was accused of blaming Albertans for the multi-billion dollar budget deficit by suggesting we all needed to look in the mirror.
Throughout the campaign the PCs were forced to answer questions about ugly nomination battles that even included accusations of bribery. Then, there was the debate.
During a heated exchange over the NDP’s promise to raise the corporate tax, Prentice said to Notley: “I know math is difficult.” He was referring to a billion-dollar error in the NDP’s budget, but that isn’t how it played out in the public.
“The ‘math is hard’ quote was almost a cherry on the cake for us as a campaign, me as a political communicator,” Houser said.
“She demonstrated that she had good humour. She demonstrated that she was intelligent. She demonstrated that she could put off a good line,” Smith added. “People had some confidence that she was not as extreme as they might have otherwise thought for the NDP, and it changed from there.”
The Progressive Conservatives would never recover in the polls, and a week-and-a-half later, Albertans elected an NDP government for the first time.