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Alberta Conservative party leadership candidate Gary Mar. (Roth & Ramberg Photography/Roth & Ramberg Photography)
Alberta Conservative party leadership candidate Gary Mar. (Roth & Ramberg Photography/Roth & Ramberg Photography)

Letter from Alberta

Alberta Tories split on next premier Add to ...

Alberta’s Progressive Conservative caucus had hoped its leadership race would be a swift, conclusive rallying cry, one that would unite the party behind a strong leader.

If only the MLAs could agree on who that leader is.

With three weeks to go until the first ballot to choose the new party leader and premier, it’s increasingly clear the majority of the PC caucus won’t have backed the winner.

Former cabinet minister Gary Mar is the closest thing to a consensus choice, with 26 of the 67 PC MLAs backing him. Former deputy premier Doug Horner has 15 and former finance minister Ted Morton has 10. Alison Redford, Doug Griffiths and Rick Orman have, together, two.

Four MLAs are running themselves and the current Premier has avoided stepping into the fray. That leaves just nine undecided MLAs, some of whom don’t plan on backing anyone. Most camps also acknowledge no one is likely to get a first-ballot majority, an outcome that would require a second ballot on Oct. 1.

All told, the party is divided, but its leaders brush it off.

“I think clearly what’s most important is the membership votes they get,” party president Bill Smith said. “The support from caucus is terrific, but they count for one vote and whatever they can bring from supporters.”

Mr. Mar and Mr. Horner, nevertheless, continue to jockey for support, each scoring victories. Mr. Horner has won over nearly all those who backed Mr. Stelmach’s 2006 bid, with the notable exception of Finance Minister Lloyd Snelgrove. He’s instead backing Mr. Mar, a former provincial advocate in Washington.

“I think the leadership role I see us needing is that one. ... about selling Alberta and the Alberta story, not only to Albertans but the rest of Canada and to the world stage,” Mr. Snelgrove said, saying Mr. Mar was best suited for that job. “It certainly shouldn’t be looked at as a knock on Doug Horner.”

In addition to his announced supporters, Mr. Mar has also won the backing of former cabinet minister George VanderBurg, though his name isn’t listed on Mr. Mar’s website. Mr. VanderBurg says the Mar team planned to announce it later in the campaign.

Mr. Horner, meanwhile, is preparing to announce the support of central Alberta MLA Diana McQueen, who had previously been linked to Mr. Mar’s candidacy after appearing as a supporter on his private Facebook group early in the campaign.

Mrs. McQueen said she had never formally backed Mr. Mar, or any other candidate, but decided Mr. Horner’s international work in agriculture marketing and his strong stance on public healthcare won her over. (Mr. Mar caused a stir earlier this month by saying he’d consider more private health options.)

“Healthcare played part of the role, as well as business experience,” Mrs. McQueen told the Globe, adding Mr. Horner was open to the ideas of new MLAs when she was first elected in 2008. “To me, as a new MLA coming in, to have a deputy premier do that was exceptional leadership.”

Ms. Redford, meanwhile, has polled at the same level as Mr. Horner but is clearly not the choice of caucus, with just one MLA supporting her. She now has little choice but to hope to emulate the example of B.C. Premier Christy Clark, who won her leadership race with scant caucus support.

Caucus support is seen as relevant because MLAs can sell party memberships and coordinate campaigns at the ground-level.

“If you’re going to do what you need to do, which is to be among the top three on that first ballot, then that type of on-the-ground organizational support is important,” said Faron Ellis, a political science professor and city councillor in Lethbridge, Alta., which held the most recent PC leadership debate. “They do represent organization, and they do represent numbers.”

Regardless of caucus support, the party president stressed it will be up to the new premier to unite MLAs after the final ballot.

“One of the things I’ve heard from all these candidates from the very beginning of this process is how critical it will be at the end of this process for the party to come together,” Mr. Smith said. “They’ve all said that to me, and I’m confident they’ll do that.”

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