The dwindling number of supporters of Alberta's long-ruling Progressive Conservative party have staked their future in the centre of the political spectrum, with a weekend leadership vote that eliminated the party's most right-leaning candidates.
Regardless of who wins in the final ballot that will be held in two weeks, the PCs have now chosen to remain a centrist party in the mould of the departing unpopular premier, Ed Stelmach. They'll hope to bank on the support of moderates – the same voters who, in Calgary, elected progressive candidate Naheed Nenshi as mayor.
It leaves the province's political right flank open for the upstart libertarian Wildrose Party.
This weekend’s results seemed to be, above all, a result of apathy among the PCs, who last month celebrated 40 years in power. Only 59,000 people voted province-wide, 40 per cent lower than the last race's first ballot.
“It’s clear that the conservative wing of the party stayed home,” said Sam Armstrong, the campaign manager for Ted Morton, a social conservative and former finance minister who finished a disappointing fourth. “I'm a little bit stunned at what has happened, both in terms of turnout, us – it's all a little bewildering.”
Former cabinet minister Gary Mar, 49, led the six-candidate pack with 41 per cent of the vote, followed by former justice minister Alison Redford, 46, at 19 per cent and former deputy premier Doug Horner, 50, at 15 per cent. All three will move on to a final ballot in two weeks.
The race's oldest and most right-wing candidates lost out: Mr. Morton, who drew 12 per cent, and Rick Orman, a former cabinet minister who earned 10 per cent.
“The PCs have clearly taken a turn toward their Red Tory candidates,” said the giddy Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith, who watched eagerly as the results rolled in Saturday evening. She celebrated. “I did have a small glass of wine,” Ms. Smith said with a laugh.
Mr. Mar has tried to cast himself as a candidate who can unify the party. He was an icon of the Ralph Klein government who preached fiscal responsibility throughout the campaign and even flirted with expanding private health-care options. He is, nonetheless, perceived to be on the party's progressive flank.
“I can reunite our party across this province,” Mr. Mar told the crowd, saying he can build a “coalition of the hopeful and the positive.”
The second ballot is a different beast than the first. In 2006, Mr. Stelmach finished in third place on the first ballot but, after selling thousands of memberships between votes, shot to first on the second ballot and became premier.
The top three candidates in this race will seek the endorsements of the other three who missed the cut. Mr. Morton and Mr. Orman said they may not endorse anyone – if they do, they would lend coveted conservative bona fides to their chosen campaign. Doug Griffiths, a rancher, teacher and backbencher who finished sixth, said he'd make a choice this week and that turnout was hurt because the vote was scheduled during harvest season.
The strategy for the three top camps is clear.
Mr. Mar pledged to get out and sell more memberships to nudge his support above 50 per cent, which is needed to win. Ms. Redford's campaign manager will move to turn the campaign into a “referendum on private versus public health care,” setting the camp's sights on Mr. Mar.
Mr. Horner, meanwhile, was focusing on driving his support to polls, something he failed at Saturday
“A lot of our vote didn’t get out,” Mr. Horner said. “We’re going to have to fix that.”
Mr. Mar's support is broad province-wide, while Ms. Redford's is concentrated in Calgary. Mr. Horner has been relying on a handful of rural ridings with high voter turnout.
Because turnout was so low in the first ballot, the race remains anyone's game. Whether they can win back conservatives, however, remains the party's top concern. The new leader will become premier but is expected to call an election in the fall or spring.
“Even on the final ballot, they're not going to be able to get those voters back,” Ms. Smith argues. “They're gone for good. And we think it's going to make for a pretty exciting election.”