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United Conservative Party leadership candidate Danielle Smith in November, 2014.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

A political fundraising machine founded to support Alberta premier Jason Kenney’s push for office has spent thousands of dollars campaigning against Danielle Smith, the perceived front-runner in the race to succeed him as United Conservative Party leader.

Mr. Kenney has publicly slammed Ms. Smith’s campaign and her proposed sovereignty act, which she claims would give the province the ability to ignore federal laws it deems unconstitutional. Shaping Alberta’s Future, a registered third-party political advertiser that has bolstered Mr. Kenney’s foray into Alberta provincial politics since 2018, last week turned on his likely successor.

The group’s anti-Smith campaign, which includes ads on Facebook, Instagram and Google, and automated text messages that link to articles questioning Ms. Smith’s qualifications as a potential leader, underscores the ideological fissures among UCP supporters. The ads are running as UCP members cast ballots through a mail-in system, with the winner scheduled to be announced Oct. 6.

Peter Kiss, a director at Shaping Alberta’s Future, said the campaign against Ms. Smith campaign is a result of fear that the Alberta’s New Democratic Party could beat the UCP if she wins the leadership race.

“Shaping Alberta’s Future is very worried about the re-election of the NDP and wants a candidate that can defeat the NDP,” Mr. Kiss, head of Morgan Construction, which focuses on civil construction projects in the Alberta oil sands and elsewhere, said in a statement. “Our worry is after so many years in politics Danielle may not be that person.”

The organization describes itself as a “free market-oriented” political action committee in Alberta that was formed to “promote Jason Kenney and the United Conservative Party.” Shaping Alberta’s Future registered as a third-party political advertiser in Alberta in the middle of 2018. Its chief financial officer is Doug Nelson, who also served as chief financial officer for Mr. Kenney’s successful UCP leadership campaign in 2017.

Third-party advertisers are comparable to political action committees in the United States. They flourished in Alberta after the NDP in 2015 banned union and corporate donations to political parties and later created caps on the amount of money individuals could contribute to candidates or parties.

Ms. Smith has spent much of the leadership campaign targeting Mr. Kenney and attracting support from UCP members who were dissatisfied with Ottawa and the Premier’s approach to negotiating with the federal government. She also argues Mr. Kenney’s public-health restrictions and vaccine mandates, put in place in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, infringed on the rights of Albertans and has pledged to never repeat those policies.

Opinion: The UCP leadership race has turned into a referendum on Danielle Smith’s sovereignty act

Mr. Kenney is not involved in Shaping Alberta’s Future, according to Mr. Kiss and Mr. Nelson. Shaping Alberta’s Future is not endorsing any of the other candidates, which include former Wildrose leader Brian Jean and Travis Toews, who served as finance minister under Mr. Kenney. The premier’s office did not return a request for comment.

Mr. Kiss did not answer questions about the cost of the campaign or why it started so late in the leadership race. Data from Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, show Shaping Alberta’s Future had spent between $7,800 and $9,196 on social media advertising as of Sept. 20. The ads, which link to four articles disparaging Ms. Smith from Shaping Alberta’s Future, started last week, according to Meta.

Ms. Smith’s campaign manager, Matthew Altheim, directed a request for comment to the candidate’s Twitter feed. There, Ms. Smith thanked competitor Todd Loewen for distancing himself from a robocall that purports to be from his campaign and criticizes Ms. Smith, while referencing the campaign from Shaping Alberta’s Future.

“I am sure many of you have received this bizarre call or have seen the other wild ads out there coming from shadow groups,” Ms. Smith wrote. “I would encourage all campaigns to fully distance themselves from these tactics & groups. Let’s finish strong.”

Mr. Kiss, the director from Shaping Alberta’s Future, said the advertiser is not involved in any robocalls.

The campaign against Ms. Smith “definitely feels a little bit desperate,” said Mandi Johnson, a campaign strategist with Crestview Strategy who previously worked for the UCP government and four of the seven candidates in the competition. That includes Ms. Smith, whose own polling puts her in the lead, according to local media.

Shaping Alberta’s Future draws attention to Ms. Smith’s time as Wildrose leader, when she led a mass floor-crossing in 2014 to the then-governing Progressive Conservatives. The group’s campaign attempts to connect that decision to the rise of the NDP, which won the next election.

Ms. Smith’s challengers in the race to replace Mr. Kenney did not aggressively or effectively use the floor-crossing against her, according to Ms. Johnson. Now, it may be too late for the strategy to work, she said, noting she received a text message from the organization late last week.

“This is a narrative that should have started Day 5 – not the dying days of the campaign.”

As a political advertiser, Shaping Alberta’s Future’s revenue totalled about $1.7-million in 2018, while its expenses came in around the same amount. Mr. Kenney campaigned across the province to unite the right before knocking the NDP out of power in the spring of 2019. The organization ended 2021 with about $5,700 in assets, according to disclosures with Elections Alberta, and raised $40,000 from two donors in the first quarter of 2022.

It is unclear how much money it spent in the first half of this year, when Mr. Kenney was campaigning to save his leadership. Mr. Kenney, in May, garnered 51-per-cent support in his leadership review; he pledged he would step down after a new leader was selected.

Shaping Alberta’s Future also registered as a third-party election advertiser in November, 2018, and deregistered in this category in January, 2020. Third-party election advertisers and third-party political advertisers are governed by different rules.

Political advertisers can only advertise outside election periods. They are not subject to spending limits. Each contributor can collectively donate up to $30,000 per year to third-party political advertisers, with money donated to third-party election advertisers counting toward that limit if the contributor is a resident of Alberta.