Big numbers, murky logistics, and the emerging battle for the ‘hearts and souls’ of Alberta’s UCP

Twenty thousand.

That’s the estimated number of people the United Conservative Party (UCP) executive says could descend on the upcoming leadership review of Premier Jason Kenney. It could end up being thousands more.

It’s a number no one has been able to explain and one that’s causing headaches for every group involved — Kenney’s campaign team, the party executive, the constituency associations and those trying to oust the premier. 

Kenney’s team says it’s perplexed by the registration numbers, currently at 15,000, and by who has registered for the vote on April 9 in Red Deer. 

According to their data, 49 per cent of those 15,000 bought their first UCP membership in the last four months.

“It’s very unprecedented. I’ve never seen anything like it,” a Kenney campaign official said. CBC News has agreed not to name them because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the review.  

“The liability is those unknowns.”

Kenney’s campaign estimates with those high registration numbers and a lot of uncertainty about event logistics, it could be a close result.

The premier has set the bar for success at a simple majority, 50 per cent of the vote plus one. It’s the lowest possible margin of victory by the party’s governance rules and a much lower goal than is typical (former premiers Ed Stelmach and Alison Redford both secured 77 per cent in their reviews and ultimately didn’t finish their terms).

The party executive is discussing how to adjust the event logistics, with a decision expected this week. The party was planning the event for 3,000 people, not almost seven times that number. 

Party president Cynthia Moore originally insisted to the membership that a single, in-person location in Red Deer was the best way to ensure the fairness and integrity of the vote. With attendance ballooning, the party has been forced to consider other options. 

The United Conservative Party executive says an estimated 20,000 people could descend on the upcoming leadership review of Premier Jason Kenney. (CBC)

But a chunk of the party’s membership is insisting the rules don’t change. 

Thirty-three constituency presidents from across the province sent a letter Tuesday to the party president after a meeting Monday night, setting out their expectations for the logistics of the leadership review. CBC News obtained a copy of the letter.

They asked that the event remain in Red Deer, at the same venue on the same date as the party originally scheduled.

They’ve asked for voting hours to be extended from 9 a.m. until 9 p.m. instead of the scheduled 12 to 6 p.m.

They’re also asking for more volunteer scrutineers to be allowed to oversee the vote and asking that voter lists be managed on paper and not electronically. 

Fixing the fractures

For many members, the leadership vote is more than a mark on a ballot. Some see it as symbolic of the party’s struggle to stay unified and a battle for the future of the UCP. 

“[It’s about] who we are in our hearts and souls,” Rob Smith, the UCP constituency association president from Olds-Didsbury-Three Hills told CBC News. 

The UCP’s marriage between the more centrist progressive conservatives and the further right Wildrosers — vows made in 2017 — is struggling. Divisions have been revealed by the handling of the pandemic, scandals from top government officials, disagreements on policy and Kenney’s ties to all of the above. 

“The party is going to split,” a president from northern Alberta said. CBC News has agreed not to use their name, as they are not permitted to discuss internal party matters.

They estimated the worst-case scenario post-leadership review would be up to 20 per cent of members, constituency presidents and MLAs walking away from the party before the next election, even despite support in their riding for Kenney.

Although they said their constituency is about 75 per cent in favour of Kenney with 25 per cent against, many in that quarter are supporters of Brian Jean, the newly-elected UCP MLA and former Wildrose leader who has campaigned to remove Kenney as leader.

“Brian Jean has no idea what kind of hornets’ nest he would inherit if he took over the party,” the president said. 

“If [Kenney] loses, we’re going to have a year of dysfunction and an NDP government.” 

Brian Jean easily won the Fort McMurray-Lac La Biche byelection last week, with 63.6 per cent of voters choosing the UCP candidate on their ballots. (CBC)

Another president from Calgary said this is the worst division they’ve ever seen and it has to be stopped.

A recent poll from Janet Brown Opinion Research — which the firm says the party leaked without consent — showed the UCP has a four-point lead over the NDP. It also suggests Kenney’s approval rating has risen to 36 per cent.

However, Brown’s poll also stated 60 per cent disapprove of Kenney’s performance and 55 per cent of respondents don’t trust what Kenney says about Alberta’s future. 

“There is so much internal dissent in this party. They have spent a year fighting internally, they’re putting all of their attention on this leadership vote. There are people who are deeply invested, and finding a way to move forward after this is going to be extraordinarily difficult,” said Lisa Young, a political scientist at the University of Calgary.

Reworking the brand as an election approaches

Kenney’s team says that elusive unity is achievable with the current leader. They’re targeting “mainstream” conservatives in Calgary and Edmonton, according to the campaign official.

People, they said, who are “aware of the consequences of having a hostile takeover of our party by fringe elements.”

That’s in contrast to campaigning being done in rural areas by grassroots anti-Kenney groups who say the “U” in UCP is only possible with fresh leadership. People are tired of the “Kenney-ocracy,” as Smith calls it.  

“I am not a right wing radical,” he said. 

The inner turmoil in the party over identity, unity and inclusion is troubling to one Calgary MLA. 

“The number one thing about branding is trust and we’ve struggled a little bit,” said Richard Gotfried, who represents the riding of Calgary-Fish Creek.

“We need to regroup and move forward.”

Unity will be a big messaging push from Kenney’s team, the campaign official said.

“It’s not worth the risk to go back into division and discord when there’s an election in 12 months.”

People across the UCP spectrum largely agree the party cannot continue in this state of fractured uncertainty. 

But it seems unlikely the party will reach a conclusive definition of its identity and path forward in those 12 months, let alone three weeks.

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