Rural, urban divide, Wall's legacy and 'carbon isn't a villain': Prof weighs in on Sask. Party leadership race

A University of Saskatchewan political scientist says the fact most of candidates are spending most of their time in rural parts of the province reinforces that's where the party's base and policies lie.

Charles Smith says Gord Wyant's and Alanna Koch's campaigns are ones to watch

On Saturday, the five candidates running to be the next premier of Saskatchewan participated in the party's third leadership debate in Saskatoon. (Adam Hunter/CBC)

The candidates from Regina and Saskatoon running to be the next leader of Saskatchewan likely "don't have a path to victory," according to one political scientist.

Charles Smith, who teaches at the University of Saskatchewan, said the divide between urban and rural between premier hopefuls is interesting as they campaign to fill the shoes of Premier Brad Wall as leader of the Saskatchewan Party.

(Smith donated to Saskatoon Meewasin NDP MLA Ryan Meili's byelection campaign.)

He notes that so far, most of the candidates have spent a considerable amount of time in rural parts of the province, reinforcing that's where the party's base lies and where it will remain going into the 2020 general election. 

Of the five candidates, Ken Cheveldayoff (Saskatoon-Willowgrove), Tina Beaudry-Mellor (Regina-University), and Gord Wyant (Saskatoon-Northwest), are urban MLAS, with both Cheveldayoff and Wyant describing themselves as centrists.
Smith said urban MLAs like Ken Cheveldayoff might have a difficult time getting votes. (Jennifer Quesnel/CBC News)

Scott Moe represents the rural riding of Rosthern-Shellbrook, while Alanna Koch, a veteran civil servant and only unelected member running, has a farming background and is a self-professed "agriculture champion."

"I think the urban MLAs are in really tough," Smith said on Sunday, the day after candidates took to the stage in the party's third leadership debate during the party's annual convention.

"I don't see a path to victory for them, specifically other than you might see some interesting vote splits in Mr. Cheveldayoff, I think in that sort of populist route might have an edge on Mr. Wyant."

Wyant pitches himself as centrist

During this weekend's debate, Wyant told members the party needs to move back to the centre.

"There may be a perception that the party's drifted a little bit, I think that's resulted in some people not feeling quite as warm within the party as they once did," he explained.

"It's important to bring those people back and I think I have the talent to be able to do that," he told reporters afterwards, adding the losses in the past two Saskatoon byelections is indicative of the problem.
On the weekend, leadership hopeful Gordon Wyant told members the party needs to move back to the centre. (Mike Zartler/CBC)

Smith, however, said while it's worth watching to see if members have an appetite for a leader to gain more ground in the cities, he is doubtful Wyant's approach will work.

"I don't think he's going to win and I think that's exactly why. I think he's too Liberal for that party at this point in time," said Smith.

Koch: the non-outsider

Smith said Koch is another candidate to watch.

He said Koch is a contradictor candidate: Having closely aligned herself with Wall's legacy—even securing the endorsement of his parents—she's also an outsider with having never served as an elected leader in the legislature, despite spending years behind the scenes.

"It's sort of change, but not real change," Smith explained.

He also believes that in the minds of delegates, the fact she is not a member of the legislature is a non-issue, pointing out the precedent has been set before at the federal level and most recently with the election of NDP leader Jagmeet Singh.
Smith said candidate Alanna Koch aligning herself with Brad Wall's legacy could prove to be successful. (Brandon Harder/CBC)

During Saturday's debate, Smith said he was surprised by Koch's comments around carbon which included the statement "carbon isn't a villain" and the federal government's science around it being incorrect.

Nuclear energy

"I think that someone who's got so much policy experience I'm not sure that's the best sort of position to take given the debates we're having at the national level," Smith said.

Koch explained to reporters afterwards that while she believes carbon emission must be reduced, Ottawa isn't acknowledging the role carbon plays in agriculture and its existence in the province's grasslands and forests.

She also said that if elected premier, she will revisit the discussion of nuclear energy in the province.

"I think Saskatchewan people are ready for that, I've had a lot of questions on it."

Moe has caucus support, Cheveldayoff is populist

Smith said it is still difficult to pick a leadership front runner.

Candidate Scott Moe has gained the support of 22 MLAs in caucus. (Don Somers/CBC)

He said having the support of 22 MLAs in caucus is significant for Moe's campaign—as is his rural roots—which Smith believe says a lot about where the party is at.

But Cheveldayoff offers a "populist mentality," which members may find attractive.

Beaudry-Mellor is "too new"

"I think Ms. Beaudry-Mellor is unlikely to be on the final ballot," Smith said. "I think she's too new and hasn't quite got her that much support."

She was the only candidate not to rent a hospitality suite over the weekend and throw a party for Sask. Party supports.
Smith says leadership hopeful Tina Beaudry-Mellor might not make it on the final ballot because she is newer to politics. (CBC)

"I have been quite deliberate about recruiting new people into our party and into our campaign team. It's as been a very deliberate strategy, but that has meant that we have been less resourced than some of the other campaigns and that's OK and I'm good with that, " Beaudry-Mellor said.

Civil leadership campaign, no surprise

"​None of these candidates are playing the role of Donald Trump and insulting the other candidates. This is a very typical leadership race in Canada, very civil," said Ken Rasmussen with the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy at the University of Regina.

"But I think there may be both overt campaigns and whisper campaigns emphasizing who's got a better chance of holding votes in the city area."

Rasmussen said Wyant may have the best chance to bridge the city and rural vote of the five hopefuls, but winning the coveted race comes down to selling.

"It's really a ground war. It's about who can get the most memberships. We saw this with Jagmeet Singh and the NDP."

Rasmussen said getting memberships is a strength of Cheveldayoff, who he said is known for a strong ground game.

With files from CBC's Adam Hunter and Stephanie Taylor