Could Ric McIver actually win the Alberta Progressive Conservative leadership race?
Or, to put that another way, could Jim Prentice lose?
Maybe that seems like a theme for a political science fiction story to you. After all, Mr. Prentice -- the former banker, corporate lobbyist and federal cabinet minister -- is the choice of the PC establishment.
What's more, he's now backed by 49 of 59 PC Members of the Legislative Assembly. All the political oddsmakers say he’s a sure bet to win. He acts like a guy who's on a holiday cruise to victory.
But if he astonished everyone by losing, he wouldn't be the first front-runner preferred by the mighty PC establishment to drop the ball on voting night, would he?
As a matter of fact, he’d be the third in less than a decade! The fourth in a row if you want to count Ralph Klein's victory over Nancy Betkowski in 1992, although that one seemed like more of a real contest at the time.
Alert readers will recall that in 2006 Jim Dinning's ascension to the throne of Peter Lougheed appeared to be all but a certainty. The smart money was all on his candidacy. The PC establishment wanted the former Alberta provincial treasurer in the job -- 38 caucus members supported him, compared with 13 for the next most popular candidate. The polls showed him leading by a mile. And all the hot Alberta political strategists were supposedly in his corner.
For his part, Dinning acted like a man on his way to an easy victory, and an easy general election after that.
Turned out Dinning was running a terrific general election campaign, visiting every riding in the province, reaching out to all kinds of Albertans. Alas for him, though, a leadership campaign is not a general election. The number of memberships you sell counts more than the number of ridings you visit.
Perhaps Dinning paid insufficient attention to the riding associations with the votes. Perhaps he didn’t concentrate on what die-hard Tories wanted, or where their loyalties actually lay. Whatever it was, when the dust had settled, a guy named Ed Stelmach was the premier. As we all asked at the time: Ed Who?
Then in 2011, after Stelmach said to heck with the abuse that automatically goes with the job of being premier, and after a short interregnum during which the party took a look at candidates like Ted Morton and Doug Horner, the smart money settled on Gary Mar.
Mar was a minister under Klein, and tout le monde political Alberta reached the conclusion all at once that he was the front-runner, favoured by the Tory establishment and backed by some of the same hot political strategists who had worked for Dinning.
I don't think that Mar's ascension to the throne was ever seen as quite the sure thing Dinning’s appeared to be. Just the same, he had the most backing in caucus -- 27 members compared with 14 for Horner and 11 for Morton. The smart money settled on him early and stayed there until the night in October on which the party selected … Alison Redford.
If you like, you can blame teachers and other public employees who bought party memberships to support Redford -- whom they'd mistakenly decided was some kind of progressive. But, in their defence, buying memberships is what the PC Party asked them to do. What? It wasn't supposed to make any difference?
As for the party establishment, Redford was backed by only one caucus member other than herself, and none of the party's big movers and shakers.
Now, here it is 2014, Redford has been fired by her own caucus, Dave Hancock is premier pro tem, and Prentice is assumed by all the same people to be the front-runner with such a massive lead that no one could possibly catch him.
McIver, who seemed like he might have had a slight chance at the start, apparently shot himself in both feet by joining something called the March for Jesus last month. Remember that? When it turned out the organizers behind the march had some astonishingly homophobic views, the punditocracy reached the conclusion he was done like dinner. After all, the whole thing smacked of the Lake of Fire debacle, the discovery in 2012 of the undiplomatic blog post by an evangelical Wildrose candidate that appears to have sunk the Wildrose Party in the 2012 general election.
But are you sure? Don't forget that McIver, the MLA for Calgary-Hayes, was well known in Calgary before his career in provincial politics as an alderman universally known as Dr. No -- for his habit of saying no to spending proposals backed by other city councillors. I'm just saying, but it seldom hurts to have a nickname in politics.
In 2010, McIver ran for mayor of Calgary -- and was favoured to win, so he knows what that's like -- and did well, even if he lost to a more liberal guy named Naheed Nenshi. The next year, he ran for the Legislature and got elected.
People all over Alberta -- and especially in Calgary and the south -- know who he is and what he stands for. A lot of them like that Dr. No stuff, and a fair number may even not have cared about -- or noticed -- the story about the March for Jesus.
Name recognition alone might not be enough to float his boat, but in the meantime, Prentice is campaigning a lot like… Jim Dinning.
He's running a good general election campaign designed to persuade Alberta voters that he's not scary and, even after the flip-flops and entitled behaviour of Alison Redford, he can be trusted.
That may work with the masses in Edmonton, where a lot of voters at the moment plan to vote NDP, and in Calgary, which seems to be leaning the Wildrose way nowadays. But how will it play in Ponoka? More importantly, how will it play inside the PC Party -- where most activists are still plenty to the right of the general populace?
I don't know about you, but at this point in the contest, it feels to me like Prentice's support is a mile wide and an inch deep -- and that he may have forgotten that in a party leadership race, memberships sold count for more than where they were sold.
Meanwhile, Albertans know who Ric McIver is, and a fair number of them may very well like what they see. McIver is capable of selling thousands of memberships in his south Calgary powerbase, not to mention to supporters of the March for Jesus.
Jim Prentice, the same people may ask… who's he?
And you've got to admit, the whole PC leadership campaign sure hasn't caught on fire -- just yet, anyway. Blogger Dave Cournoyer called it the world's most boring political leadership race, and I'd say he just about nailed it.
So could Ric McIver actually win?
It's unlikely, I suppose. The Tory establishment isn't going to make it easy for him. For one thing, there's no way it wants to lose for a third time in a row… or a fourth if you count Klein, although that one worked out better for them.
And maybe I'm just a political blogger pipe dreaming about a race that's actually interesting.
But the answer is yes, McIver could still win -- notwithstanding the self-inflicted holes in both of his feet.
Could he go on to beat the Wildrose Party? That's a story for another day.
And could Thomas Lukaszuk, the MLA for Edmonton-Castle Downs and once Redford's Deputy Premier and the owner of the best hair in Alberta politics, also pull off another "miracle on the prairies" and eke out a victory?
The answer to that one is easier: No.
This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.
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