CALGARY - MP Jason Kenney thrust uniting the right to the front burner of Alberta politics Wednesday as he pledged to use a run at the Progressive Conservative leadership to bring together small-c conservative voters to defeat the NDP.
The high-profile former federal cabinet minister said it's imperative that the Alberta Tories and Opposition Wildrose put past differences aside if they are to take back power from Rachel Notley's "accidental NDP government."
"There is only one way to eliminate that risk, only one way to ensure that we defeat the NDP in 2019 and get Alberta back on the right track. And that is to unite Albertans around a common cause," he told supporters Wednesday.
"The Progressive Conservatives and Wildrose parties must put Alberta first. We must focus on the future, not the past, on what unites us, not what divides us.
"We must come together to form a single, free-enterprise party and we must do so before the next election."
The Wildrose emerged as a political force in Alberta about a decade ago when disaffected conservatives grew upset with the long-governing Tories and their perceived drift to the political centre.
The two parties split the right-leaning vote in the May 2015 election and the NDP captured a majority for the first time in provincial history. Tory leader and premier Jim Prentice resigned on election night and the party has been without a permanent leader ever since.
It could be a tough fight brokering a reconciliation between the more moderate PCs and the hard-line Wildrose.
The PCs have said they aren't keen to merge. One Tory member of the legislature, Sandra Jansen, has already said she won't sit in a Tory caucus led by Kenney.
Party president Katherine O'Neill said Wednesday she expects other candidates will join the race.
"I can't talk about his candidacy, but what I can say is it will definitely bring a lot of interest back to the party and what the party's been up to since the election."
The Wildrose has said it would be happy to unite, but only under its banner and with leader Brian Jean calling the shots.
Jean, himself a former Conservative MP from Alberta, stood by that position Wednesday."
"We will continue to build our party in every corner of Alberta, provide stability, give a forward-looking vision for the province and strongly oppose the NDP government's risky agenda" he said in a statement.
Kenney highlighted his efforts as a member of the Reform party and later the Canadian Alliance, saying if that party managed to merge with the federal Tories in 2003, bringing together Alberta conservatives should be a "walk in the park."
Much of Kenney's speech appeared aimed at Wildrose supporters and touched on most of that party's hot-button issues, including parental rights, the NDP's carbon tax, plans to increase the minimum wage and farm-safety legislation.
"Wildrose supporters are not our enemies or our adversaries. They're our friends," he said. "They are family. We are all family together."
Notley wouldn't be drawn into a direct comment on Kenney.
"However many conservative leaders and conservative parties may be involved in that (2019) election ... is less my concern than having a record that I am proud ... to present to Albertans," she said.
Kenney promised that any talks between the two provincial parties would be done openly, not in backrooms, citing the surprise mass floor-crossing of Wildrose legislature members to the Tories in 2014 that angered the grassroots on both sides.
He did not say if he plans to resign as an MP and didn't take any questions from reporters.
Holding onto his federal seat would not be unprecedented. Recently, Patrick Brown remained an MP while seeking the Ontario PC leadership.
Interim federal Conservative Leader Rona Ambrose, also an Alberta MP, wished Kenney well.
"I encourage all conservatives to work together to forge a united path to victory," she said.
Conservative MP Michelle Rempel questioned whether uniting the right will be easy in Alberta.
"It's not going to be a walk in the park all the time," she said. "There are concerns, there are personalities, but my hope is Albertans put that aside and unite," she said.
"I think this was a spark today."