Calgary MP Rob Anders got a favourable nod from Prime Minister Stephen Harper and an energetic endorsement from a powerful senior cabinet minister. He had his 17-year incumbency in his corner, and his long-honed ability to fend off nomination challengers even before they got in the race.
But in a competitive nomination contest on his home turf this past weekend, those factors weren't enough to stop long-frustrated Conservative party members from voting against the outspoken MP for the newly created riding of Calgary Signal Hill. The vote is a signal the Harper government is facing enough internal and external political pressures in the year before the next election to live up to a promise for fair and open nomination races, even if they expose fissures within the party or drum out long-time loyalists.
And Mr. Anders got a clear political walloping. Although the party does not release official figures, multiple Conservative sources said three of four of more than 2,400 party members who cast a vote on Saturday supported Ron Liepert, the former Progressive Conservative MLA who set out earlier this year to give his home riding an option besides Mr. Anders.
"The motivating factor was wanting changed representation," Mr. Liepert said in an interview Sunday. "It may be some people who have been life-long Conservatives who couldn't stand to vote for Rob Anders one more time."
With the area's long history of voting Conservative, many say they believe Saturday's nomination vote was the true political contest – not the 2015 election – in the new constituency that covers much of Mr. Anders' current riding of Calgary West. Although the Liepert team complained of misleading phone calls and attempts to grab control of the nomination process by the Anders campaign – including a push for an early contest, seemingly endorsed by party brass, meant to give the current MP an edge – the vote was different from past years, when the party process explicitly protected incumbents.
What the riding will now get in a Conservative candidate is a frank and sometimes combative politician, just as likely to speak off the cuff as the man he deposed. Mr. Liepert has often been criticized for his key role in the creation of Alberta's bureaucratic and much-maligned health superboard. One of his first acts after winning the nomination vote was to attack federal Employment Minister Jason Kenney for endorsing Mr. Anders over the weekend.
"People do not like to be told how to vote. And that's what the attempt was, and I think it's inappropriate for a senior cabinet minister," Mr. Liepert said, adding Mr. Kenney and others shouldn't be "poking their nose in other peoples' nominations."
Mr. Liepert, 64, is also an experienced provincial cabinet minister, not a social conservative, and during a closed party debate on Friday night, he promised he would stay awake while speaking with Canada's former soldiers – a direct reference to the day in 2012 when Mr. Anders, 42, fell asleep during a committee presentation on homeless veterans in Halifax, and suggested those who criticized him for dozing off were NDP supporters.
The socially and fiscally conservative Mr. Anders is, however, a staunch loyalist to Mr. Harper. The Prime Minister had been quoted praising Mr. Anders in campaign materials. While it was unclear whether it was an official endorsement in the nomination contest, some Conservatives are reading Mr. Anders' loss as a rebuke to both the Prime Minister and Mr. Kenney, and a small show of dissatisfaction with the tight controls often enforced by the governing party.
"Stephen Harper kind of endorsed this guy – and has for years – and then Jason Kenney came on," said Dan Morrison, a local Conservative who had wanted to join the nomination race but was rejected as a candidate by now-former party executive director Dimitri Soudas.
"And the electorate here in Calgary told them to shove it."
Mr. Anders, who has been the MP in Calgary West since 1997, has repeatedly said Mr. Liepert got his support form people who usually vote Liberal or NDP, not true Conservatives. He didn't speak Sunday regarding his future plans, or on speculation he is interested in running in another federal riding – with the focus on Calgary Rocky Ridge, just to the north of Signal Hill. The question now is whether the party will stand for such a move – a question likely to figure into other upcoming party races where incumbents lose in their first-choice riding.
One Conservative source said party brass haven't yet decided how they'd handle a situation where an incumbent MP, who has lost a nomination, runs for another nomination. "There is no specific rule on someone running for a different nomination, but this is something the party's National Council would have to consider if it comes up," the Conservative source said.
Another career option for Mr. Anders is provincial politics. Mr. Anders has been a vocal supporter of the Wildrose party, and there is talk that he might try to run for the Official Opposition in the next provincial election scheduled for early 2016. But there was no word on this from Mr. Anders on Sunday, who said he was busy cleaning up and spending time with his team.
"I'm very proud to have fought for tax cuts, for standing up for families. We've taken a lot of great stands on a lot of great issues and it's been fun," Mr. Anders said in a statement e-mailed to reporters.
With files from Josh Wingrove in Ottawa
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