Is Jason Kenney the candidate who can unite Alberta conservatives?

He hasn't officially entered the race, but unveiling his plan will allow people a chance to assess that.

The outline of what he needs to do seems clear:

  • Kenney needs to win the leadership of a party — the Progressive Conservatives — he has spent years deriding.
  • He has to negotiate a merger with or a takeover of the Opposition Wildrose Party.
  • Then he must convince Albertans that this new political entity has a plan to run the province.

Is that all?

It's long been said that the toughest job in Canadian politics is to be the leader of the Opposition in Alberta.

Tough job of Alberta Opposition

No, that's not just because in recent decades that person had to face off against PC premiers.

It's also because in Alberta's unconventional political history, they don't get to fulfil their dreams of achieving power.

The only time that's happened was when a guy named Peter Lougheed went from Opposition leader to the premier's office in 1971.

So, the challenges for Kenney in this political project are daunting. But politics isn't for the timid.

Former PC cabinet minister Jonathan Denis seems energized by the prospect of Kenney switching political arenas. Denis used to be the MLA for an area in southeast Calgary that Kenney represents federally.

'Just the fact that someone this high-profile is talking about the need for one conservative party is encouraging to me'
- former MLA Jonathan Denis

He's known Kenney for years, going back to their days in Saskatchewan where the two met at Liberal events in that province.

Denis is keeping an open mind on who is the best person for the vacant PC leadership. He wants to sees the actual field of contenders first.

But he says Kenney is the kind of candidate he would consider backing.

Kenney has a reputation as a successful fundraiser and has built relationships for Conservatives in many diverse communities.

He's also a polarizing figure. Kenney provided another example this week with a comment in favour of the results of the U.K. referendum.

Still, Denis feels Kenney can be a player in re-uniting Alberta's fractured right.

"Just the fact that someone this high-profile is talking about the need for one conservative party is encouraging to me," said Denis.

"I think he — as many conservatives are — is very worried about what the NDP is doing to this province and wants to put a stop to it."

Where Prentice failed

We've seen this movie before. The plot: A guy with the sterling federal resume wants to '"come home" and run Alberta.

Jim Prentice was more at home with the progressive side of the PC Party when he became its leader.

With some help from Preston Manning, Prentice arranged a kind of corporate-style takeover of the Wildrose Party by drawing then-Opposition leader Danielle Smith and much of her caucus over to the PC side.

One early election call, an unpopular budget and that botched merger attempt later, Prentice turned over the reins of power to the NDP and resigned his seat.

To Wildrose leader Brian Jean's credit, the sense of betrayal over Smith's floor-crossing actually re-invigorated the Wildrose party.

Now as Jean faces whispers in his party about his leadership, another former Harper cabinet minister — this one from the blue side of the federal party — wants to re-unite Alberta conservatives, starting with a run for PC leader.

Already some in the PCs are chafing. MLA Sandra Jansen says if Kenney becomes her party's leader, she's out.

The PCs have always prided themselves as being a big tent party. It has been the party of Ralph Klein and Lougheed. Ted Morton and Dave Hancock. Ric McIver and Alison Redford.

But when the federal PCs and the Canadian Alliance merged to form the Conservative Party of Canada, there wasn't much weeping about the fact that red Tories like Joe Clark or Scott Brison weren't happy to support the new party.

Ron Liepert weighs in

Ron Liepert, a former PC cabinet minister who now sits with Kenney with the Conservative Party caucus in Ottawa, has a special perspective on the race.

"As it sits today, we are further apart from unification than we've been since the election of a year ago," said Liepert.

Like Denis, he's not endorsing anyone yet for the vacant PC leadership. But he feels some new blood and experience is required to prod Alberta conservatives to think bigger.

"Quite frankly, I think it's going to take something like this if we're going to have conservatives unified in time for the 2019 election," said Liepert.

The veteran politico feels both the PCs and the Wildrose Party need to focus.

Both the PC's and Wildrose have issues to address

He concedes the PC brand has "become somewhat tarnished" by its later years in power. But Wildrose has its problems too.

"In many ways, the Wildrose situation in Alberta today I think parallels what the federal Reform/Alliance situation was federally in that as a protest party, you can only go so far," said Liepert.

"Set Brian Jean aside, there are senior people within Wildrose who might quietly or otherwise acknowledge that."

The Wildrose Party and the PC Party each carry their share of baggage with voters. Plus they have plenty of scars from fighting each other.

They now have three years left before the next provincial vote to decide if they hate the NDP more than each other.

Denis believes both parties are too fixated on what divides them. "There's much more that unites us."

The federal re-unification plan may be a guide. It's up to the members to decide, not the leaders. And when the new party is launched, creating a fresh identity for it could help.

It makes sense that a re-branding exercise be a part of Kenney's unite-the-right vision rather than one side or the other winning a protracted war of attrition.

"The name Conservative Party of Alberta does have a certain ring to it," said Denis.

Oh, wait. That name has already been registered by the Wildrose Party.