Worst. Leadership race. Ever.

Somewhere in my collection of flotsam and jetsam of old newspaper clippings from my youth, I have the famous Edmonton Journal paper from the day after the Progressive Conservatives, under Peter Lougheed, finally toppled the Social Credit dynasty. The headline, written in massive type in true Tory blue, read: “Now! It’s Lougheed!”

Now, as the longest reigning Canadian provincial government in Canadian history staggers to the finish line of its third leadership race in eight years, the most likely headline should be “Finally … it’s Prentice.” 

On Saturday, the PCs will announce the winner of their leadership race, and if all goes according to plans (and polls), the new man will be Jim Prentice, another Calgarian with extensive ties to The Industry. (Calgary, it seems, produces leaders or would-be leaders; Edmonton produces opponents. Good thing somebody does.)  As everyone knows, the PCs are in disarray. After 43 years in power, the party seems to be suffering from the political equivalent of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. If you were to lay a bet right now, it would seem the wise choice to put your money on the odds-on favourite in the 2016 election, Wildrose leader Danielle Smith.

But wait! The PC party obit has been written more often than Mark Twain’s. (Twain, after a premature obit appeared, famously said: “The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”) In some ways, when Prentice takes over the party, he will be in a better position than Alison Redford.

Redford, you may recall (and it seems almost impossible to believe, considering how far she had fallen), took over with sky-high hopes. Finally, the progressives cheered, a truly progressive Progressive Conservative. A worldly, big-city lawyer — and a woman! (I had a feeling the Liberals were in trouble when a long-time Liberal operative I know greeted the election of Redford not with dread, but with unbridled joy.)

Redford was, shall we say, a bit of a disappointment. The party Prentice inherits is in disarray, bedevilled by a series of puny, travel-related scandals and a general sense of exhaustion. While Redford started on a high with great expectations, Prentice starts with the party at a low ebb. In other words, nowhere to go but up.

(I write this based on my assumption that Prentice wins. If either of the two lame-duck candidates — professional dunderhead Ric McIver, or the slithering Thomas Lukaszuk — somehow wins, you can dust off that PC obit and run it today. If Prentice wins, we can happily write the long overdue obit of Lukaszuk.)

Prentice actually has some potential. After the feckless farmer Ed Stelmach, and the patrician Redford, all Prentice has to do is play the hard-nosed businessman type and ground the government’s silly fleet of airplanes. (By the way, this ‘scandal’ of Finance Minister Doug Horner taking his wife on the occasional plane ride is a whole lot of nothing. If there was an empty seat on the plane, as I assume there was on the times she went along, the actual cost to the taxpayer is nil. This is small change.) Alberta, after all, is in pretty good financial shape, and to most voters, that’s all that matters. Once Prentice realizes that he had billions of dollars to throw at any problem — health care, education, whatever the problem du jour is — he will make these problems go away in time for the next election. 

Once this dreadful, uneventful, petty leadership ‘”race” is officially over, Prentice can get down to business. His first order of business will be, of course, business. Get to work, avoid trivial scandals, and the Tories can easily extend their record setting longevity streak. The Wildrose is always just one dip into the lake of fire away from reminding the public of their extremist roots, as we saw in the last election. 

(By the way, the New Democrats are also holding a leadership vote, pitting the earnest Rachel Notley against the earnest David Eggen, and somebody else who is, I assume, earnest. Just thought I should mention it.)

 

The PC race from one Liberal’s view.

As a Liberal party supporter, I am disappointed — and a little worried — by the results of the first round of balloting to replace Ed Stelmach as captain of the unsinkable Ship Tory.

I was hoping Ted Morton would make a better showing — even winning. This has nothing to do with who I want to see as premier, and everything to do with who I wanted to see lead the Tories into the next election.

From a Liberal point of view, Doug Horner is preferable, Gary Mar troubling, and Allison Redford is a potential neutron bomb that would destroy the party. Let me explain.

The elimination of Terrible Teddy Morton from the race spells the end of Morton as a force in the PC party, and the end of a tantalizing right-wing faceoff.

Morton barely waited for Ed Stelmach’s political corpse to cool before he quit his cabinet post to run.  He was in the race for the longest, raised $1 million, and garnered only 6,962 votes, and a sad fourth place finish.

What happened to Morton? Perhaps he was seen as too old in a young field. Perhaps the party faithful was still holding it against him for not working well with Ed Stelmach. Maybe it was that hilariously ill informed Globe and Mail editorial that supported him. Or, most likely, the party just wasn’t buying what Morton was selling.

The end of Morton as a force in the party is significant. Morton represented the very conservative wing of the Progressive Conservative party, and was seen as the answer to Danielle Smith’s Wildrose Alliance. A Morton v. Smith election would have been a right v. righter battle, leaving the progressive or less-conservative field wide open for the Liberals, NDP, and the Alberta Party. But the party rank and file (and the tens of thousands of Tories For A Day) has signified they don’t want the party to go hard right to counter the Wildrose. Perhaps the Tories, riding higher in the polls lately, just don’t see the Wildrose as the threat it was once seen.

Now it’s down to three: two right of centre (but not crazy right) candidates, and one with a definite Red Tory hue.

Mar represents the city (read: Calgary) moderate right of the party. Alison Redford represents the city (read: Calgary) moderate left of the party. If Redford wins, as one longtime Liberal told the Globe’s Josh Wingrove, the Liberals might as well fold their tent and call it quits. Redford’s background is more liberal than most Liberals, and would provide a lot of progressive voters an excuse to abandon the Liberals (or the NDP, or the Alberta Party) with the hope of putting in place a more progressive government.

Horner, I think, is the most beatable from an opposition standpoint. Uncharismatic, not really rural and not really city, Horner is the least interesting candidate among the survivors. He is hampered by memories of Ed Stelmach; the party did the same thing with Dreary Eddie, and even though they won Stelmach’s only election by a huge margin, the party (read: Calgary) didn’t take to this small town nice guy. Nobody inside Fortress Tory wants another Stelmach scenario.

Regardless, Mar’s lead is so huge, and his money reserves so vast, I can’t imagine any compromise second or third place candidate overtaking him. But now he has two weeks of walking around with a bull’s eye on his back. And two weeks is an eternity in politics.

PC race fueled by money the other parties can only dream of having.

I haven’t had much to say about the PC leadership race, being preoccupied with the Liberal race. I guess that’s like saying that I’ve been ignoring the Major League Baseball playoff races because I’ve been captivated by the Edmonton Capitals run to the North American League championship. That would be true if I watched baseball, which I don’t.

I also haven’t had much to say about the PC race because I really haven’t got a clue what’s going on inside that organization. The Tories play by a different set of rules, or, as Fitzgerald said, the rich are different from you and me.

For example, in the just completed Liberal race, the five candidates raised just over $100,000 between them.  Hugh MacDonald raised about half that total; winner Raj Sherman’s biggest donor was … Raj Sherman.

On the Tory side, Doug Griffiths is being lauded for running a “shoe string” campaign, spending about $100,000, That’s one guy. A shoe string campaign that raised almost as much as all five Liberal candidates.

Here’s another comparison. PC candidate Doug Horner is reporting that he has raised about $750,000, which is $100,000 more than the Liberals spent on an entire provincial election campaign in 2008.

Horner isn’t even the biggest of the big spenders in the PC race. Ted Morton says he has raised about a million dollars. Gary Mar, the presumed front runner (who had enough money to buy a full-page at in the Journal), and Alison Redford, the possible compromise candidate, are both reporting about half-million bucks raised. We don’t know how much future also-ran Rick Orman has wasted on his doomed campaign, so the totals aren’t in yet. But collectively, the five candidates will raise and spend about $3 million on the race.  And that’s just for the leadership. I don’t know what kind of money the Wildrose will be able to raise in the next election, but it won’t be remotely close to the kind of money Alberta’s businesses and economic elite will lavish on the Tories. The financial imbalance is by far the biggest obstacle opposition parties face in Alberta.

And what of the race itself? If the polls are any indication, Mar will lead after the first ballot. I doubt, with so many candidates, that he will score a first ballot victory. But he could easily score on the second round. Unlike Ed Stelmach’s unexpected win, there doesn’t seem to be anywhere near the polarization of the party between camps as there was in the Jim Dinning v. Ted Morton slugfest. I don’t see any room for a compromise candidate, a la Stelmach. If Mar doesn’t win it on the first ballot, I think he’ll win it on the second.

But what do I know? When Ed Stelmach announced that he was going to run for the PC leadership, I honestly didn’t know what he looked like — and I was an MLA at the time. So nothing outside of a Rick Orman victory would surprise me on Saturday.

Ranking the Tory race: the early line

So the field is set for the semi-annual running of the PC Leadership Derby. And what a field it is! Up and comers, and people who think they are up and comers. Former stars and has beens, the too young and the too old. It’s an interesting (although not exactly inspiring) group.

With a couple of months to go before the PCs pick their new leader, and by extension our new leader, it’s still too soon to tell who’s leading the pack. All of the pundits who made their predictions the last time the Tories went through this exercise are staying rather silent this time, partly because it is a wide open race, and party because nobody has any real idea who’s ahead. And everybody’s looking for the next Ed Stelmach.

Ah, but what the hell. Let’s do some handicapping anyway.

Gary Mar 

Pros: Smart, personable, experienced at a high government level, including five cabinet posts. The only non-Caucasian in the race could give him an appeal to ethnic voters. Untainted by the stumbling Stelmach regime. From Calgary, and we all know that Calgarians think it’s their turn. Has strong caucus support, in numbers if not in quality.

Cons: His fall from grace, the Kelly Charlebois scandal, hurts his image. For those who need a refresher, Charlebois was Mar’s former executive assistant who got more than $400,000 in untendered consulting contracts from Alberta Health when Mar was minister. Mar was demoted from the health portfolio, and took the first train out of town when the Washington position opened up. Presumed front-runner status not necessarily a good thing.  Remember Jim Dinning, everyone’s favourite future leader? Big city guy like Mar has limited appeal to rural Alberta.

Chances: Aside from the Charlebois fiasco, not many Xs on the negative ledger. Likely the guy to beat.

Alison Redford

Pros: The least conservative Conservative in the race, Redford will certainly appeal to the Progressive side of the Progressive Conservative party, if such a side still exists. Defuses one of Wildrose Alliance leader Danielle Smith’s most powerful weapons (lone female in a male dominated political scene), and could provide the starkest contrast to Smith’s brand of conservatism. Genuine Conservative bona fides, and a legit up and comer.

Cons: Again, the least conservative Conservative in the race, Redford will likely be anathema to red meat Conservatives. (She’s a human rights lawyer type, for crying out loud! What would Ezra Levant think?) Zero appeal to rural Alberta, a side of the party which still holds great sway. Minimal government experience may give some the impression she is trying too early for the brass ring, or, put more bluntly, she could come off as a pushy dame. (Hey, we’re talking Conservatives here.)

Chances: Pretty long, unless she really impresses the big city types. If I were a Tory voter, however, I’d give her serious consideration.

Ted Morton

Pros: If the provincial election comes down to who can out-conservative the other conservative leader, Morton has the edge. Morton makes Danielle Smith look like Janeane Garofalo. Only holdover from last PC leadership vote, Morton probably had his election campaign idling for the past few years. First to quit cabinet and announce his intention to run for the leadership, and when the winner is the person who sells the most memberships, that could be decisive. Certainly has the greatest appeal to rural Alberta.

Cons: Pretty old, with all the personality of a small town United Church minister. May be too conservative for many, and likely will alienate those who see Alberta as being a lot more (pardon my language) liberal than we’re made out to be. Has support from the likes of Carl Benito, Doug Elniski, and David Xiao. With friends like that …

Chances: Still pretty good, but fading. Best position to cash in on rural vote.

Doug Horner

Pros: Solid, reliable, steady. Closest thing to an Edmonton candidate in the race.  Lots of MLA support. Has solid main street cred with rural Albertans. Stands a good chance of being a compromise candidate.

Cons: Not exactly inspiring as a speaker. PCs will no doubt recall the last time the party opted for a solid, reliable, steady, compromise candidate. Nobody wants a Dependable Doug after the Steady Eddie era. Not exactly the face of change the party may need to present to fend off the Wildrosies.

Chances: Decent, certainly in the top three.

Doug Griffiths

Pros: Youngest guy in the race. Rural Alberta (and by that, I mean neither Edmonton or Calgary) candidate. Might appeal to younger Tory voters. Lots of MLA experience. Might be a good counter to Smith.

Cons: An MLA since he was 29, Griffiths doesn’t exactly have the world experience or gravitas the Tories might want.  Looks entirely unready for leadership.

Chances: Slim and none. Would finish last, if it were not for …

Rick Orman

Pros: One time major player in the Tory party. And that’s about it.

Cons: Vast majority of Albertans would react with a ‘Rick who?’ response if asked about him. Biggest claim to fame was that he was a Don Getty-era cabinet minister. That’s like saying you were in the Joe Clark government.

Chances: Hey, somebody’s got to come in last.

So, who’s on first? Without actually talking to any actual Conservatives, I’d have to divide the field into three groups: contenders (Mar, Morton, Horner), outside chancers (Redford) and no hopers (Griffiths, Orman).

But remember, I didn’t think Ed Stelmach had a chance either.