The latest bid to dethrone Rob Anders has officially begun.
Former Alberta finance minister Ron Liepert launched his campaign Thursday for the Conservative nomination in the riding of Calgary Signal Hill, a de facto attempt to push out the often-controversial Conservative MP for Calgary West, Mr. Anders.
The former Reform MP has survived challenges before, including one by Alberta's current premier, Alison Redford. But Mr. Liepert, 64, said it's worth another try.
"There have just been a number of people who've had enough, they're fed up," Mr. Liepert said Thursday morning, when his website, NominateLiepert.com, launched his campaign. He lives in the redrawn Signal Hill riding, where Mr. Anders has said he'll run, and represented it provincially. "It's not a matter of me taking on Rob Anders, but it's a matter of Rob Anders choosing to run in an area where we know he's unpopular."
The announcement comes after a group launched a website last week, under the slogan 'It's Time to Do Better,' rallying support for a nomination race in the riding. "The response to that has just been quite unbelievable, actually," Mr. Liepert said. His campaign said the website had signed up 500 supporters so far.
Mr. Anders has fired back at Mr. Liepert, accusing his group of not being true conservatives, calling them "Red Tories" and saying they'll rely on Liberal and NDP supporters buying memberships to defeat him. He has routinely fought off similar challenges in the past, and says he prepares for a challenge each election.
On Thursday, Mr. Anders called Mr. Liepert "Red Ron" and said he hasn't seen evidence of a campaign on the ground in the riding. "I'm the one who is door knocking in the riding," Mr. Anders said, pointing to Mr. Liepert's comments, including as recently as 2012, that Alberta should have a "discussion" about introducing a provincial sales tax to fund new infrastructure. "He's generally open to tax hikes, period," Mr. Anders said.
Mr. Anders expects to draw support from a deeply Conservative pocket of the riding known as Dutch Acres, including a major Christian school and a large church. "They're very strongly conservative," he said.
Mr. Anders is routinely re-elected by overwhelming margins in his current Calgary West seat, a Conservative stronghold. Under a new electoral map, much of the outgoing riding is included in the new boundaries of Signal Hill. Mr. Anders was an early supporter of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's bid for the Canadian Alliance leadership, but doesn't think his backing of Mr. Harper – whom Mr. Liepert's campaign website praises – will help him in the nomination race. "I think he's probably not wanting to be seen interfering in a local nomination. I think it's very clear to everybody I'm the Harper supporter, and Mr. Liepert is the Red Tory," Mr. Anders said.
Mr. Liepert was once press secretary to former Alberta Premier Peter Lougheed, the icon of the provincial PC party, and served as an MLA from 2004 to 2012, including time as minister of finance, energy, health and education. He gained a reputation as a bruising presence in caucus, a fierce partisan who rarely minced words. He didn't seek re-election in 2012, and has been working since as a consultant.
Mr. Anders, 41, was first elected as a Reform MP in 1997, and is among the more vocal members of the Conservative Party's social conservative wing. He's drawn scorn for a series of contrarian comments. He was the lone MP to object to honorary citizenship for Nelson Mandela, and once suggested NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair "helped to hasten" Jack Layton's death. In 2010, he signed a message for Canadian soldiers with the phrase: "When in doubt, pull the trigger." And in 2013, he spoke at an anti-abortion rally, warning supporters that MPs taking a stand on abortion could face nomination challenges. "The men behind me have taken strong stands and have made enemies for doing so," he said at the time.
All this was enough for Mr. Liepert – who ran Ms. Redford's unsuccessful bid to defeat Mr. Anders – to toss his hat into the ring. He brushed aside questions of what role he might expect in caucus if he defeated Mr. Anders, a long-time supporter of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, with Mr. Liepert saying he's taking the process step by step. "It's a ground game, and that started today at 6 o'clock," he said Thursday.
Conservative nomination races have not formally been called, but could be as soon as next month. Many in the province expect nomination races there to be largely wrapped up by summer. Mr. Liepert said he expects the local Conservative association to call a vote at an unusual time, anything that will make it difficult to rally support against Mr. Anders.
"I have no doubt about that. In fact, I'm expecting the nomination will be called on something like the Saturday night of Easter weekend....that's why we're starting early. We're encouraging people to buy memberships. People have been buying memberships, hundreds of them. We're not going to take anything for granted," Mr. Liepert said.
Unseating incumbents for a nomination is a difficult task, one Mr. Liepert acknowledged in a statement on his website. "An incumbent, especially one that has served for almost 17 years, has access to many resources that our team does not," he wrote.
The next federal election is expected in fall of 2015. The Conservatives won 27 of 28 seats in Alberta in the 2011 election, making a nomination for the party in the province a prize and, in all but a few cases, essentially a guarantee of a seat in parliament.
Signal Hill is considered one of those safe ridings, indicating Mr. Anders' and Mr. Liepert's biggest challenge is in the nomination race.