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How Alberta fits into the Conservative leadership race

The province has delivered prime ministers and cabinet members to Ottawa for a century, but its role in choosing the next leader of the Conservative party could be subdued. 

Province highlights complexity of national issues like natural resources, climate change and regional anger

Conservative leadership candidates in 2017 shake hands following the Conservative Party of Canada leadership debate. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

Alberta has long been a heartland for Conservatives. The province has delivered prime ministers and cabinet members to Ottawa for a century, but its role in choosing the next leader of the Conservative party could be subdued. 

There are no prominent Albertans in the race so far and the voting structure could force candidates to think nationally, not regionally. Despite limited potential to influence the outcome of this particular contest, Alberta's position in discussions of frustration and policy could hold its place firmly in the national spotlight.

Alberta's prominence in the Conservative party of 2020 is not as it was when Stephen Harper was defeated in 2015. A slew of prominent cabinet ministers during the last Conservative government came from Alberta, people like Rona Ambrose, Jason Kenney, Jim Prentice and Monte Solberg.

"There aren't a whole lot of visible, high-profile Conservative MPs in Alberta," said Duane Bratt, a political scientist at Mount Royal University.

With no obvious home-grown choice, Albertan party members will have to look to someone else.

Alberta is a loyally Conservative province, where the party took all but one seat in the last election.

However, when it comes to leadership races, concentrated support doesn't always help. In the 2017 race that elected Andrew Scheer, each riding was weighted equally, meaning candidates needed broad support across the country. It's unclear if the rules will be changed this time, but it means securing this province's support likely won't guarantee victory. 

"If you had someone who said 'I'm running for the Conservative Party of Canada to represent Alberta's interests,' you're not going to win," Bratt said.

Political and regional fissures

While Albertans may not decide the outcome of the Conservative leadership, the province encapsulated two polarizing issues in the 2019 election: climate policy and the future of Canada's natural resources. The intersection of the two will be a challenge to solve for the incoming leader, according to Solberg, a former cabinet minister in Harper's government.

"I think for any potential new leader they've got to show that they have an understanding of the natural resource sector and have to figure out how to convincingly reconcile the environment and resource development," he said. 

He added the successful candidate will have to speak to agriculture workers in the Prairies and auto workers in Ontario with equal authority, alluding to a broader dilemma for the party.

Who's running for the leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada as of Jan. 23, 2020 (CBC News)

"It shows the challenge that the Conservative party has with the fissures both ideologically but also geographically," Bratt said. 

Those divisions exist between fiscal and social conservatives, but also beyond party boundaries as tensions rise between Ottawa and Alberta over climate policy, oil and gas and fiscal transfers. 

That anger was communicated to the federal Liberals as they were shut out of every seat in Alberta and Saskatchewan in October's election.

After the Conservatives lost, Scheer acknowledged in November that Albertans "are on the front lines" of decisions made by Trudeau's government.

Wexit anger

Frustrations in Alberta have led to a rise in separatist chatter and the provincial government is currently examining how the province could be more autonomous. The Wexit Canada party was also recently approved by Elections Canada to run candidates in the next election.

The question for Conservatives is who could carry the mantle and represent those sentiments for Alberta, now that former interim party leader Rona Ambrose has taken herself out of the race.

If name recognition is a must, Bratt says there's only one option left in Alberta: Calgary MP Michelle Rempel Garner.

Solberg agreed: "She'd be a welcome entry in the race, there's no doubt about it."

Names will continue to fly, but time is ticking down. Candidates have to confirm they're in by the end of February. 

"If anyone's going to get in," Solberg said, "they need to do it quickly."

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