His political career ended with the Alberta floor-crossing. Meet the resurrected Danielle Smith

This column is the opinion of James Johnson, a former researcher for the Wildrose and United Conservative parties in Alberta. For more information on CBC Opinion Sectionplease consult the FAQs.

The return of Danielle Smith shocks more than one Albertans. It shouldn’t.

Many think she did the unforgivable sin in 2014, when as leader of Wildrose, she crossed the floor with her fellow MPs to join Jim Prentice and his Tories, who would lose to the NDP months later. After that, many politicians wrote her off and forgot about her, exiled forever.

But believe it or not, the Tories who hated her the most then are the very ones who love her the most now and want her as leader and prime minister of the UCP.

This revival didn’t start weeks ago. It has been under construction for years.

Months after being kicked out of politics in 2015, she was back in the saddle to rebuild her brand with it radio program. She returned to the public conversation addressing the issues of the day every morning, and over time Tory MPs, MPs and even Prime Minister Jason Kenney joined her as guests.

They helped bring her back from the political wilderness, and Albertans began to remember why she became popular as the leader of Wildrose in the first place.

I worked for her for five years, then five more for Brian Jean and Jason Kenney. I tell you she’s back.

The Rural Rock Star’s Comeback Tour

Danielle can pack a room in rural Alberta. Places you’ve probably never heard of.

In 2011, I spent three weeks with her on the road, visiting the towns and cities of Alberta. In Plamondon, a hamlet of 350 inhabitants in the county of Lac La Biche, a few hundred people showed up to hear him on a weeknight in August.

She was a conservative rock star. Have you ever tried to cram hundreds of people into a party hall to talk politics? In summer? Now she is starting over.

Fifteen years ago, when rural property rights advocates railed against arcane land use planning laws regarding power lines, they were largely ignored. Danielle distilled their concerns into a simple and devastating message: the government is going to rip you off and take your farmland so their corporate cronies can build power lines.

During 2010 and 2011, she turned this type of message into political dynamite. She became prime minister in a weekend in the 2012 election, and Wildrose’s rural seat wins permanently fractured the Progressive Conservative dynasty.

Danielle Smith appeared to destroy her political career in 2014, when she led a massive shift from the Wildrose party to Jim Prentice’s Progressive Conservatives, before the NDP prevailed over both parties in the election the following spring. Alberta conservatives seem to have forgiven or forgotten this episode, writes James Johnson. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

Danielle masters simple messaging. Her delivery is joyful and done with a smile. With a few anecdotes, she makes her solutions to complex problems incredibly compelling.

Its new slogan? Alberta first. You may disagree with this, but if Alberta isn’t first, what is? Second?

She made an early promise to ignore federal laws she didn’t like. Among the many things that this idea caused, everyone talked about her.

COVID-19 has been a gift to her, both on the radio and in her political resurrection. While she was talking seriously about ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine as coronavirus treatments made polite society cringe, strangers once again found her channeling their voices. Her articulation was so clear that some wondered if she was a mere spokesperson or a true believer.

And now she’s luring supporters by saying « never again » about COVID lockdowns, no matter what.

She also did it while debating the Alberta provincial police project, with competitors who gave perfectly rational answers about its complexity.

She instead dismissed how the RCMP confiscated firearms after the 2013 flood in High River. Dodging the details to expose federal malfeasance delivered a heady shot of political whiskey.

Short-lived grievance, anger, and victory

Danielle Smith never lets a good grievance go to waste. She created the modern anger machine in Alberta politics.

In the age of rage, the anger machine is a winning tactic but a losing strategy. Like a grocery cart, the anger machine stops when it strays too far from its corral.

You can win the party with anger. You won’t win government with this, as evidenced by the Wildrose party’s failures to win in major cities in 2012 and 2015.

And since Danielle filled this room in Plamondon, the population of the hamlet has decreased by 10%, to 303. Calgary and Edmonton add the population of Plamondon each week. Each.

Fueling the anger machine can also make you think you are in control of it. Danielle learned this the hard way, and she had fallen out with the Wildrose base by the time she ditched the party in the crossing.

The United Conservatives are thirsty right now, so Smith’s shots of political whiskey are just what the members are looking for. His rivals, seeing his early success, might also reach for the bottles.

But too much loudness can make the party sicker. Do you remember 2015? A political hangover is a hell of a thing.

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