For the first time in a decade, outspoken MP Rob Anders’s sway over the wealthy western edge of Calgary and a key Conservative stronghold is under threat.
This week the incumbent Mr. Anders will face what appears to be a real challenge from former provincial cabinet minister Ron Liepert in a party nomination vote in the newly redrawn constituency of Calgary Signal Hill, which covers much of the old riding of Calgary West.
The suburban constituency is home to oil and gas executives, white-collar professionals and young families. It boasts views of the foothills and mountains, a new light-rail transit line, upscale shops, restaurants and million-dollar houses – and includes a small pocket known as Dutch Acres, where the socially conservative Mr. Anders counts on support from devout Christians.
The prosperity of the riding has grown in step with Alberta’s oil industry, but what hasn’t changed is the consistency with which voters have cast their ballots for conservative parties. The last Liberal win was during the Second World War. Stephen Harper was elected as a Reform MP in Calgary West in 1993, the same riding Mr. Anders, 42, has handily won since 1997.
It’s why the heated Conservative nomination contest this Saturday, not the federal election in 2015, is considered by many to be the true political test.
“Not to degrade any of the candidates or anything, but you could put a monkey in here under the Conservative banner and we would vote Conservative, and I’m including myself,” said Trevor Nawalkowski, a long-time resident of the riding. No fan of Mr. Anders, he said his voting decision is a matter of the Conservative Party’s fiscal conservatism and “Western representation.”
The nomination race is, on one hand, a microcosm for the long-standing battle between two types of conservatives – what Mr. Anders calls “pure, distilled conservatism” versus more centrist elements.
But it is also the result of Mr. Liepert’s push to depose Mr. Anders, a political foe and an MP some constituents consider an embarrassment.
The list of Mr. Anders’s off-script moments includes describing Nelson Mandela as a terrorist and falling asleep during a meeting with veterans. However, Mr. Anders, with the help of party rules in recent years that protected incumbents, has fended off challenge after challenge. Mr. Liepert argues the last time Mr. Anders faced a real nomination test was in 2004, when he faced off against Alison Redford, then a political neophyte whose campaign was run by Mr. Liepert.
Mr. Liepert argues Saturday’s contest is akin to a pressure valve release for Calgary Signal Hill Conservatives and he expects 3,000 party members will vote.
“The one thing I have heard most from constituents is, ‘Why is it we have to vote for that guy if we want to vote Conservative?’ ” said Mr. Liepert, who cut his teeth as a staffer to former Alberta premier Peter Lougheed and is also known for being frank in his views.
“Finally, they’re getting an opportunity to do something about it.”
However, Mr. Anders classifies Mr. Liepert as a “Red Tory” – which he said is a “rump” conservative faction. Mr. Anders said his opponent has signed up Liberals and New Democrats, allowing other parties to worm their way into the contest. “The nomination is a struggle for the soul for the party,” said Mr. Anders, who has been door-knocking daily to keep his job.
No one can question Mr. Anders’s longevity, and he has riding supporters who share his conservative or tough-on-crime views. There are also those who prefer the candidate they know, and like that Mr. Anders is unquestionably a Harper loyalist – an important credential in a city that still widely supports the hometown Prime Minister.
“He unfortunately, for us, represents some stability, and I believe he does for Stephen Harper too,” Mr. Nawalkowski said. “So why would you want to rock the boat on this?”
Mr. Liepert is not without his own political baggage for true-blue Conservatives, including his role in creating Alberta’s controversial health superboard bureaucracy, and his willingness during his time as a cabinet minister to discuss a provincial sales tax.
But the Anders campaign’s constant robocalls show the MP is worried, according to Mr. Liepert. “He is showing acts of desperation with some of the stunts he’s been pulling.”