Many federal Conservatives from Alberta are supporting Jason Kenney for leadership of the United Conservative Party – but others warn not to discount Brian Jean in the race, either.
The top two contenders for leadership of the new provincial party, made up of members from the Wildrose Party and Progressive Conservatives, are both experienced former federal politicians who have earned the respect of their Alberta colleagues on Parliament Hill.
Mr. Jean announced his leadership bid last week and Mr. Kenney is expected to officially jump into the race on Saturday. He will hold events in both Edmonton and Calgary.
Other contenders include Calgary lawyer Doug Schweitzer, who represents the PC side of the new party. Derek Fildebrandt, a Wildrose MLA who has positioned himself as a defender of so-called liberty conservatism, is also considering a run.
The new leader will face the monumental task of bringing the various factions of the party together – from the more hardline voices to the progressives – and writing coherent policies that attract the average voter.
In Ottawa, many Alberta MPs believe Mr. Kenney will enjoy the most support from his federal cousins. Party members will vote for their new leader on Oct. 28, with a policy convention expected next spring.
"I think the majority will probably be supporting Jason," said Ron Liepert, the MP for Calgary Signal Hill.
"What he has done from day one has been quite remarkable. He's had a goal in mind and he's worked his butt off to get it to the point where it is today."
Mr. Liepert, a former Progressive Conservative MLA, said he won't play an active role on Mr. Kenney's campaign, but can talk to party members about his decision to support him.
"Hopefully, that moral persuasion will be of assistance," Mr. Liepert said.
But Mr. Liepert said it won't necessarily be an easy ride. Mr. Jean, who took the helm of the Wildrose in March, 2015, and kept it afloat when it was in disarray, is expected to be a formidable opponent.
"I certainly don't view Brian Jean as an underdog," Mr. Liepert said. "I think it will be closer than maybe some people think."
Prior to returning to Alberta, both men had lengthy careers in Ottawa. Mr. Kenney spent nearly 20 years in federal politics as an MP for Calgary Southeast, later named Calgary Midnapore. He served a variety of ministerial roles in Stephen Harper's cabinet, including immigration, employment and national defence. He returned to Alberta last July with a promise to unite the right and was elected PC leader in March.
Mr. Jean was the MP for Fort McMurray-Athabasca for nearly a decade until 2014, serving as the parliamentary secretary to the transport minister.
Both men also have campaign managers with federal ties. In Mr. Kenney's camp is long-time Harper confidant John Weissenberger. Mr. Jean recently announced that Hamish Marshall will act as campaign manager, after successfully steering the campaign for federal Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer.
Conservative MP Blaine Calkins, chair of the federal party's Alberta caucus, said he's supporting Mr. Jean for leader, whom he calls a close personal friend.
"He's done a good job as the leader of the opposition. He's revived the Wildrose Party when it was floundering, and has been able to raise enough funds to get the job done," Mr. Calkins said.
Mr. Calkins also spoke of Mr. Jean's character during a challenging year: Mr. Jean's youngest son, Michael, died after a lengthy illness, later diagnosed as lymphoma, while Mr. Jean was campaigning for the Wildrose leadership. His house was one of thousands that burned down in the Fort McMurray wildfire last spring.
"The guy's been able to remain stoic and steadfast, and handle some very trying times with grace," Mr. Calkins said.
Others believe Mr. Kenney is the one who can beat Rachel Notley's NDP government in the 2019 election.
Tom Kmiec, the MP for Calgary Shepard, has known Mr. Kenney for a decade and considers him a friend and mentor.
"I think he'd make the better leader for the United Conservative Party. I think he can win in 2019 and bring all the Conservatives together," Mr. Kmiec said.
Mr. Kmiec, who has worked for both the provincial PCs and Mr. Kenney when he was immigration minister, said his former boss has a track record of "doing the impossible."
"Two years ago, if someone had told me that the parties were going to unite … I would have said that's impossible. That can't be done. There's too much animosity and hurt feelings. It had gotten very personal," he said.
"And Jason brought together people I never thought would work together."
The biggest challenge for the party, Mr. Kmiec said, is time.
"Whoever the leader is has less than two years to build up a war chest, convince donors to donate generously, recruit volunteers, build local associations," he said.
"All of that in two years is a lot to ask of anybody. That's the biggest challenge. It's not so much bringing everybody together, because they showed that they are together already. It's the mechanics."
Conservative MP Garnett Genuis, who represents the Edmonton-area riding of Sherwood Park-Fort Saskatchewan, is also supporting Mr. Kenney.
"Most of us know Jason, have seen his work up close at the federal level. But also we're in touch with what Conservative members and activists are thinking and saying in our riding," Mr. Genuis said.
"I think that my support for Jason reflects the views of people in my area, to have a leader with vision who understands and respects the grassroots."
Other MPs, such as former federal leadership contender Deepak Obhrai, are taking a more conciliatory approach to the race.
"Both Jason Kenney and Brian Jean are good friends of mine," Mr. Obhrai said.
"I'm supporting both."