Former Conservative national campaign manager Tom Flanagan will be running the spring election campaign for Alberta’s Wildrose Party, the latest sign that the allegiances of federal Conservatives are split in the party’s home base.
Wildrose is a libertarian upstart casting itself as a more-conservative alternative to the governing Progressive Conservatives, who have strung together 40 consecutive years of government in the province. A poll Monday showed Wildrose gaining, but still well behind the PCs led by Premier Alison Redford.
In Mr. Flanagan, Wildrose gets a campaign manager with deep ties to the federal Conservative Party. He’s a University of Calgary professor and former colleague and confidant of Prime Minister Stephen Harper – whom Mr. Flanagan has nonetheless criticized occasionally since.
His hiring shows how Wildrose continues to tap into the Conservative base in its bid to dethrone the more centrist PCs.
“The number of years of experience he brings to the campaign is immense to us,” said Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith, who Monday’s poll showed as effectively tied, 40-39, in approval ratings with Ms. Redford. “He’s given a lot of focus to our efforts, and we’ll be ready to go whenever it is they decide to pull the plug.”
An election is expected in late April. Monday’s Forum Research Inc. poll showed the PCs with 38-per-cent support and projected to win 57 of the province’s 87 seats (the party currently holds 68 of 83 existing ridings). Wildrose had 29-per-cent support, up from 23 per cent a month earlier, and was projected to win 17 seats. The NDP was set to expand to five and the Liberals, currently the official opposition, were projected to retain just four seats.
Wildrose is gaining, but Ms. Redford shot back at questions about the poll Monday. “I wouldn’t characterize it as ‘pretty close,’” she said, later adding: “I don’t comment on [polls]and I’ll say what every politician does – and that is that the only one that matters will be on election day.”
Told of Mr. Flanagan’s new position, PC party president Bill Smith (no relation to Danielle Smith) declined to address it specifically. “We’re really trying to focus on what we’re doing,” he said. Asked whether support among federal Conservatives was split, Mr. Smith said: “I think the most important thing for us is the support of Albertans.”
Mr. Flanagan has long had ties to Wildrose, taking out a membership at its annual meeting in 2009 and serving informally as an adviser since. He was to serve as deputy campaign manager if there had been a fall election, Ms. Smith said. With a lighter U of C workload in the spring, he’ll take on the full gig.
It was his name atop an e-mail sent to party supporters Monday soliciting donations. However, Prof. Flanagan is on vacation until early next month and declined to comment. “Sorry, no comment on internal affairs,” he said by e-mail.
Conservative MPs from Alberta are under orders to stay neutral in the race, but some acknowledge there’s a split among their caucus, voters and donors. It was Ms. Smith – not then-premier Ed Stelmach – who was photographed with Mr. Harper at last summer’s Calgary Stampede, a meeting some federal Conservatives have pointed to as a signal.
Now Mr. Flanagan, who has written scholarly articles with Mr. Harper during his time as an academic, will lead the charge for Wildrose. One MP, however, says most Alberta Conservatives in Ottawa are trying to remain neutral.
“You know what, I can only speak for my own perspective. I’ve got board members that are Wildrose members and I’ve got board members that are Progressive Conservatives in Alberta. My focus is on representing Alberta in the federal government,” MP Brian Storseth said in a recent interview, after a PC cabinet minister told a meeting in Mr. Storseth’s riding that the federal government didn’t understand Alberta’s needs.
“I think that’s what we need to focus on … and honestly, I do think that’s the sense of Alberta [Conservative]caucus for the most part. I don’t think there are too many guys out there actively campaigning for one side or the other.”