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COLUMN: Big prize requires moderation

Winning the UCP leadership is one thing, but it takes broad appeal to be victorious in a general election.
Jason Kenney didn't survive his first term as premier. File Photo

As I watch candidates try to carve out their place in a crowded UCP leadership race, I can’t help but wonder whether this expensive and noisy exercise will ultimately prove successful. 

A leadership race is a great way to energize a party and fill its coffers, but it’s such an in-house affair that it’s not always the best barometer of electoral success. The age-old challenge is that a candidate needs to not only curry favour with party members to win the leadership, but must also appeal to the broader electorate if they’re ultimately going to claim the big prize.  

I’ll be the first to admit that my frame of reference when it comes to Alberta politics is limited, but I think it’s safe to say the United Conservatives have a rather big tent, a coalition that spans the entire right side of the political spectrum. With such disparate views under one banner, there’s been plenty of room to stake out territory and candidates have been taking advantage of that opportunity. 

It would seem to this newcomer that for a new leader to be successful in next year’s general election, he or she must strike some kind of balance because extreme views just aren’t going to sell province-wide, particularly not in voter-rich urban centres. The new leader must be palatable to the Wildrose segment but also appeal to moderates within the party and, most importantly, to right-leaning voters throughout Alberta who don’t carry UCP membership cards. 

In other words, the ideal candidate would be someone just like... Jason Kenney. 

I know it sounds counter-intuitive to model a campaign after an outgoing premier who barely survived a leadership review before announcing his resignation, but the underlying political climate that led to Kenney’s rise following the NDP’s 2015 electoral victory still holds true today. If the party on the right stays united, in more than name, history has shown that it prevails at election time. 

Given the baggage Kenney collected over three-plus years in office, many leadership hopefuls have been distancing themselves from the outgoing premier, but his middle of the road approach, at least on a sliding Conservative scale, might well be what’s needed this time around. 

Having come from B.C. in the months after COVID-19 took hold in 2020, I viewed Kenney’s pandemic response as often being too little, too late. He waited until case numbers forced his hand, holding out as long as he could before imposing restrictions in a bid to placate one segment of his base. In the end, he alienated most people by either imposing mandates or being too slow to do so, but in hindsight, perhaps he was simply striking a balance between those competing interests. 

He didn’t survive the fray so you could argue that it would be folly to pull a page from his playbook, but could a new face, sans all that baggage, pull it off? Maybe not, but given the amount of canvas needed to build the UCP tent, venturing to one end or the other is a recipe to lose a general election. 

Ted Murphy

About the Author: Ted Murphy

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