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New Democrats yesterday were ready for Rachel -- can Albertans reach the same conclusion?

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Rachel Notley

Rachel Notley's campaign buttons asked: "Are you Ready for Rachel?"

There was never much doubt Alberta's New Democrats were ready for Rachel, and they proved it yesterday by overwhelmingly choosing the scion of this province's second-most-famous political dynasty as leader of their party in voting at Edmonton's Sutton Place Hotel.

This has been clear since former leader Brian Mason announced his intention to retire after a decade as leader last April while the ruling Progressive Conservatives unraveled before our eyes, and certainly since Notley, 50, the MLA for Edmonton-Strathcona since 2008, officially joined the race on June 16.

Just the same, Notley's leadership team rolled the dice when they opted for a campaign strategy that, from the get-go, shot the new leader's message way out beyond the party faithful and aimed it straight at middle-of-the-road Alberta voters who are not part of the traditional NDP universe in this province.

I'd go so far as to say it was pretty bold for her campaign team to eschew the natural temptation to campaign to the party's various bands of true believers -- the granola crunchers, the die-hard trade unionists, the remaining raging reds, the Dogmatically Perfectionist Church of the NDP, and so on -- and then sneak back to the centre later.

Instead, she boldly led a tightly disciplined campaign aimed at a broad mainstream coalition of mildly progressive voters -- the kind of people to whom Alison Redford successfully appealed in 2011 and 2012, and then turned on in 2013 and 2014 -- with a message that we can do better in Alberta with a political party that really means it when it says it speaks to our values.

There's a fine line between being confident about the right way to lead the Alberta NDP from the margins to the mainstream and arrogantly assuming you can ignore the cliques and clubs within your own party to get there.

Notley's campaign executed this feat deftly, never straying from the message that mainstream Alberta voters need to hear if they're going to turn to a party that's always been on the margins outside the province's Capital Region without alienating groups within the party that value ideological purity above any chance of victory.

So the efforts by Edmonton-Calder MLA David Eggen and University of Alberta staff union leader Rod Loyola to "niche market" to some of those groups within the NDP fell flat. Notley won on the first ballot with more than 70 per cent of the votes cast.

It wouldn't be an exaggeration to call this balancing act masterful and its messaging pitch-perfect.

Now, however, the hard work starts. Notley must take the NDP's message to a bigger audience for whom the name Notley means little, citizens who have no memory of the role her father, Grant Notley, first elected in 1971 as MLA for Spirit River-Fairview, for 11 years the only New Democrat in the Legislature, and leader of the Opposition from 1982 until his death two years later in a small airplane crash 30 years ago today, played in building the party.

Grant Notley's work made possible the high-water mark of the Alberta NDP, when in 1986 it won 16 seats. For this he is revered by the province’s social democrats.

Rachel Notley's well-known skills as a lawyer and Parliamentarian may not count for much with these voters, especially in southern Alberta where the party barely registers on the political scales. As federal NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair has proved, being a Parliamentarian of the first rank and a probing cross examiner in Question Period may not count for much with bored and disconnected voters attuned to the U.S.-style media campaigns conservative parties have perfected.

So it will be a tough sell for Notley to get the NDP to the point it can be more than just a niche party rooted in one region. 

She will have to turn her agile mind to finding ways to really unite the province's progressive voters -- a much larger group than their representation in the Legislature would suggest if recent polls are to be believed -- under one orange banner.

However, it is said here, she just might be the person to do it, and this might just be the moment.

The governing PCs, notwithstanding their new leader, are deservedly viewed by voters with deep suspicion as corrupt, entitled and arrogant. The official Opposition party espouses the same bankrupt market-fundamentalist ideology. The Liberals, once the Opposition, seem to be suffering their own collapse. And the Alberta Party is barely on the radar.

The media -- to judge from some of their breathless commentary yesterday -- have already fallen in love. "She's smart, experienced and charismatic," enthused Edmonton Journal political columnist Graham Thomson last night -- quite accurately, as it happens.

She's already on a first-name basis, as it were, with a goodly segment of the population -- like Ralph … but also Alison.

So, it would seem, the planets may be in alignment for Notley not just to breathe new life into the Alberta NDP as Mason asked but, as she put it in her victory speech, to make history. "This time," she said, "let's not forget history, let's not repeat history, let's make history!"

The balance of power in 2016? The opposition? What next?


This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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