In less than 24 hours, John Cummins's bid to lead the B.C. Conservatives has morphed from a leadership race into a likely coronation that party officials say will allow him to focus on preparing the party for a possible provincial election this fall.
The former Tory MP will be the only candidate in the mail-in leadership vote on May 28 because the deadline for new candidates passed on Tuesday - the same day Mr. Cummins announced his candidacy. Assuming party members accept Mr. Cummins in a straight yes-or-no vote, he will be the new leader.
The B.C. Conservatives, who have no links to their federal namesake, are positioning themselves as a right-of-centre alternative to the centre-right governing B.C. Liberals, and aiming to gain traction by highlighting such unpopular government policies as the harmonized sales tax. They have no seats in the legislature and have not been a force in B.C. politics for decades.
Observers, including former Conservative MP Jay Hill and outgoing Tory MP Stockwell Day, have warned that an ascendant provincial Conservative Party could split the centre-right vote in the province, allowing the New Democrats to win power.
Mr. Cummins has long been critical of B.C.'s Liberals, who also have no ties to their federal counterparts, and he has been an adviser to the provincial Conservatives.
Recently ending an 18-year federal career representing Delta-Richmond East, he said he would not take anything for granted in terms of member support.
"But I think we have to operate as if we're going to be successful in that vote. There isn't really much of an option, in a sense. We can't afford to waste time, and so we'll get the nose to the grindstone or shoulder to the wheel and start pushing," he said.
"Once this federal election is over, we can hit the road, sell the party and sell the vision and grow the party, grow the membership."
On policy, Mr. Cummins has talked about more provincial control of the RCMP, increased funding for policing, especially in the Lower Mainland, improved patient service in health care and banning provincial political donations from corporations and unions.
The president of the B.C. Conservative Party said Mr. Cummins has a two-month window in which to get ready for the leadership he is likely to win given the supportive mail, e-mail and telephone calls the president said he was receiving Wednesday.
"It's been the most hectic day since I have been president for four years in terms of interest and enthusiasm," said Wayne McGrath, noting he was getting calls every few minutes. "He's got tremendous support. We thought he would."
He hopes that the B.C. Conservatives can appeal to the same federal Tory voters who gave the national party 21 of B.C.'s 36 seats in the last federal election. "These same voters provincially, up till now, have been frustrated because there has not been a truly conservative, either big-C or small-c, party to vote for," he said.
"A person like Mr. Cummins, who is a true conservative, will attract those conservative voters, who are the majority in B.C."
The party has about 50 riding associations, and the focus will be on creating an additional 35 to cover all of the province.
"What [Mr. Cummins]can do is attract new members who, in turn, will form the riding associations which, in turn will see that very strong credible candidates are nominated in each of the 85 provincial ridings. He gives the party credibility," said Mr. McGrath.
But the B.C. Conservatives face challenges. According to an Angus Reid poll released this month, they are fourth among B.C. parties at 5-per-cent support. The B.C. Liberals had 43 per cent; the NDP 38 and the Greens 10.