Keith Gerein: NDP may regret being the tortoise as the provincial election race draws near

In as little as three weeks, the NDP will begin to wage its first-ever election campaign as the defending champions of Alberta politics.

Instead of attacking the government in charge, Rachel Notley’s team will be in the unfamiliar position of defending its record, touting its accomplishments, and re-hyping a vision of the province grounded in four years of established policy.

Given the enthusiasm Notley and her supporters showed at the NDP’s convention last fall, you’d expect the party would be the proverbial bull in the chute, rarin’ to be unleashed for what is sure to be the fight of its political life.

While the rhetoric is sure ready to go, it’s less obvious that the party is prepared on a practical level.

You certainly wouldn’t know it from the NDP’s list of approved candidates to date.

As of Friday, the party website listed 36 officially endorsed candidates. That’s 36 out of 87 ridings.

For comparison, the United Conservative Party’s website shows 79 approved candidates, while the Alberta Party’s list sits at 53.

Even more concerning for the NDP is that the vast majority of its candidates approved so far are incumbent MLAs, who are already well known in their communities.

That means the party has yet to OK most of its rookies, the unknown political neophytes who theoretically need as much pre-election time as possible to meet and greet voters.

Similarly worth noting is that the NDP has spots filled in just eight of 26 ridings in Calgary, where the party must equal or surpass the 15 seats it won last time to have any chance of hanging onto power.

With an election that could be called as early as Feb. 1, you’d expect the governing party to be a little further ahead at this point.

The fact they aren’t is as good an indication as any that Notley will avoid a quick election call and instead drop the writ later in the spring.

It’s also led to speculation the party is struggling to recruit good people.

That’s a legitimate question, yet the party’s provincial secretary, Roari Richardson, insists there is no worry.

A mass of nomination contests have been scheduled for later in January and early February, he said, adding that the party is also making efforts to produce an election slate that is 50 per cent women.

The main reason more candidates haven’t been selected yet, Richardson said, is because of the party’s insistence on conducting comprehensive vetting of anyone hoping to fly the orange flag.

“I’ll be honest, in many cases our (constituency) associations have phoned me with a little bit of impatience saying they want this stuff to move faster,” he said. “But it’s important we are thorough. When I look at the nomination contests that have taken place with the UCP in particular, there has been quite a lot of internal chaos.”

In other words, it’s better to be the tortoise than the hare, because slow and steady wins the race. Or something like that.

Richardson has a valid point.

The UCP nomination process has produced an unhealthy number of controversies, some involving nomination hopefuls who were revealed to have dangerous views, and others involving complaints over the process itself.

That said, any comparison between the parties on this score has to take into account that the majority of the NDP’s nomination contests have been uncontested, whereas the UCP’s races have typically had multiple competitors.

In effect, the UCP has had far more names to vet.

Whether that extra volume is the reason for the controversies that have dogged the UCP, or whether the party attracts more extreme personalities generally, is a matter of debate.

I suspect it’s a bit of both.

Besides its candidate list, another potential area of concern for the NDP is its ground game.

Back in 2015, NDP supporters from around the country came to Alberta to help with the campaign. But given Notley’s fractured relationship with her federal NDP counterparts, she may not be able to count on similar assistance this time.

Richardson also dismisses this worry. Volunteers will show up again but, regardless, the party is in need of less support due to better finances and stronger constituency associations, he said.

Ultimately, it’s questionable how much the speed of nomination contests or extra fundraising is going to matter to the NDP’s re-election hopes.

Whether they admit it or not, the party’s strategy is going to rest heavily on its belief that Notley is the most likable, charismatic leader of the bunch.

Charisma does tend to win elections. But it’s hard to imagine that will be enough to counter the ongoing economic concerns and the fact the NDP will be facing a no-holds-barred Jason Kenney election machine that hasn’t yet lost a campaign.

In the end, the NDP may wish it had given itself more of a head start.

Because choosing to be the tortoise in this sort of race is an awfully dangerous gamble.

kgerein@postmedia.com

twitter.com/keithgerein

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