Calgary·Analysis

Some will lose Alberta's pricey UCP leadership race before the voting starts

Establishment favourites and those who got in early have the upper hand in a quick contest to replace Jason Kenney as premier

If you can't raise $175,000 in two months, party won't deem you premier-worthy

Days after United Conservatives pick their new leader on Oct. 6, she or he gets control of the premier's office in the Alberta Legislature. (Codie McLachlan/CBC)

Less than four months to go before Oct. 6, when United Conservatives pick a new leader and Alberta's next premier. But in reality, much of the contest gets sorted out well before then.

It's less than two months before Aug. 12, when anybody who wants a leadership ballot must become a UCP member. Less than seven weeks before July 29, when any leadership candidate must have paid the party $100,000, plus $25,000 "good conduct" deposit, plus another $50,000 due shortly thereafter.

And it's five weeks plus a day before July 20, when candidates must hand in a petition signed by at least 1,000 party members, equally distributed throughout the province's regions.

In other words, this is a race well-deserving of the term race. Short and small, with the bar to entry set deliberately high. 

Inflation strikes again

The $175,000 fees and deposit that UCP leadership hopefuls must submit is nearly double the $95,000 for the 2017 contest that Jason Kenney won. B.C. Liberals charged $66,000 for February's leadership race. The federal Conservatives' race asked for $300,000 from leadership, but that's across the whole country — and each camp needed to gather only 500 member autographs.

To David Price, chair of the UCP's leadership election committee, none of those are great comparisons because all those races were to pick opposition leaders. In 2022, the UCP is electing the premier, and one who must face off next May in a general election against a former premier, the NDP's Rachel Notley.

"We're playing for all the marbles here," Price said in an interview. They only want "robust" and serious candidates to run. The party sets its fee to recover the leadership election's cost, and based it, Price said, on five to eight candidates making the ballot.

Given that at least 10 candidates have either launched, registered with Elections Alberta or been heavily rumoured — why hello, MP Michelle Rempel Garner — the party assumes its rules will push at least a handful of those out of the running.

That potential roster ranges from tiny-town mayor Bill Rock and outsider MLAs Leela Aheer and Todd Loewen, all the way up to ex-treasurer Travis Toews and past Wildrose Party leaders Danielle Smith and Brian Jean. Safe bet that those folks lowest on that range are least likely to qualify.

Jason Kenney got showered with balloons on the October 2017 night when he won the United Conservative Party leadership. Less than five years later, the party crowns a successor. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

But then again, title and rank don't always equate with heavyweight status. Conservative Party of Canada former deputy leader Leona Alleslev failed to meet the CPC leadership entry requirements, while an Ontario provincial politician ousted from Doug Ford's Tory caucus made the final cut.

The UCP contest's format was also announced Tuesday — voting by mail, as the party did with Kenney's leadership review, as well as five in-person voter stations in Edmonton, Calgary, northern, southern and central Alberta. Let's wish the UCP leadership committee well in deciding whether the northern poll will be in Grande Prairie (where Toews is based) or Fort McMurray (Jean country).

Short track speed politicking 

The UCP race's entry fee and signatures will both serve as challenging hurdles, and which is tougher to clear depends on which party insider you ask. It's no small feat to raise $175,000 within two months, with no Albertan allowed to contribute more than $4,300 — and that's a donation cap across all candidates and the party, so anybody who maxed out supporting Jason Kenney this year must keep their chequebooks in their desk drawers.

For the 1,000 signatures, at least 200 must come from (once again) Edmonton, Calgary, northern, central and southern Alberta, meaning that anybody successful needs to hustle in various regions of the province, in urban and rural zones.

And while candidates' teams are racing to do all that, they have mere weeks to sign up thousands of their friends and fans before the mid-August membership cutoff. In her campaign launch, Aheer boasted that she has no entrenched political "machine" behind her, but this sort of fundraising and petitioning effort can't easily be done with mere elbow grease and a couple relatives working the phones. 

This all seems to tip the scales toward types like the apparent establishment favourite Toews, along with Smith and Jean, who began organizing well before Kenney was pushed to resign. Rempel Garner's built-in federal and social media network helps her, and former minister Rebecca Schulz signalled she can't be overlooked after a launch that included endorsements from Health Minister Jason Copping and Saskatchewan ex-premier Brad Wall.

It takes well wishes like that and $175,000 to play in this game. Just making it onto the UCP leadership roster may feel like victory, because some will probably lose well before the mail-in voting cards are shipped out.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jason Markusoff

Opinion and Analysis Producer, CBC Calgary

Jason Markusoff analyzes what's happening — and what isn't happening, but probably should be — in Calgary and sometimes farther afield. He's written in Alberta for nearly two decades with Maclean's magazine, the Calgary Herald and Edmonton Journal. He appears regularly on Power and Politics' Power Panel and various other CBC current affairs shows. Reach him at jason.markusoff@cbc.ca

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