Uniting Wildrose and the PCs in Alberta no easy task for Jason Kenney

Jason Kenney might be heading to Alberta to unify a divided right and put up a common front against Rachel Notley's New Democrats. But not only will members of the PCs and Wildrose need to be convinced — voters may prove skeptical too.

Unifying Alberta's right might be a tough sell, for party members and voters alike

Jason Kenney might be making the jump to provincial politics. It could be a difficult one to land. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Jason Kenney might be planning to leave federal politics to enter the fray in Alberta, riding in as a white knight to unite the divided right and defeat Rachel Notley's governing New Democrats.

It may prove even more difficult than many think.

Kenney, a former high-profile cabinet minister in Stephen Harper's government, has been widely seen as a likely front-runner in the race to replace the departed Conservative leader.

Instead, the job vacancy that Kenney might now be hoping to fill is the leader of Alberta's Progressive Conservatives — a position abandoned by Jim Prentice after the PCs, who had governed the province uninterrupted from 1971, were reduced to third-party status in the 2015 election.

The party that vaulted ahead and currently occupies the role of the Official Opposition is Wildrose, led by former Conservative MP Brian Jean. Kenney would need to absorb Wildrose into the PCs in order to unite the right and create a common front to fight the NDP.

Wildrose, however, is not much inclined to be absorbed. And Brian Jean doesn't want to go anywhere. With more seats (22 compared to nine for the PCs) and more money in the bank, he could easily make the argument that it is the PCs that need to sacrifice themselves.

The Wildrose party logo used in November 2015 (top) and the logo used today: a shift from Reform Party-era green to Progressive Conservative blue.
In fact, Wildrose has already been trying to cast itself as the true conservative party in Alberta. Late last year the party changed the colour of its logo, transitioning from dark green (reminiscent of the old Reform Party) to dark blue, the colour of the PCs — and the federal Conservatives.

Wildrose's attempts to reposition itself have not been subtle. Take, as an example, an image posted to its Facebook page and Twitter account, boasting of the party's fundraising performance in the first quarter of 2016. Wildrose's number was coloured a dark blue. The Progressive Conservative figure was presented in vibrant Liberal red.

Despite recent turmoil that has weakened Jean's leadership, Wildrose is nevertheless a big meal for the PCs to swallow whole. Polls conducted in the province before the party's upheaval found 34 per cent of Albertans supported Wildrose, on average, compared to 27 per cent for the New Democrats and 26 per cent for the Progressive Conservatives.

Due to the regional breakdown of that vote, those numbers would likely be enough to deliver Wildrose a majority government if an election were held now. Likely — but it would still be a close race, and that risk is not one that Jason Kenney and some other Albertans are willing to take.

The answer seems simple: unite the Wildrose and PC parties, and make it a sure thing.

Merger math is hard

The 2003 merger of the federal Progressive Conservatives and Canadian Alliance, however, shows the arithmetic is not actually that straightforward. Those two parties had captured a combined total of 37.7 per cent of the vote in the 2000 federal election; as a merged party, the Conservatives took just 29.6 per cent of the vote four years later. That was also lower than the combined totals of the PC and Reform parties in 1993 and 1997.

Similarly, there is evidence that Wildrosers and Tories do not mix so easily. Not only has the leadership of each party ruled out being absorbed by the other, but polls conducted at the end of the 2015 provincial election suggest that their supporters are not readily interchangeable.

From left: Wildrose Leader Brian Jean, NDP Premier Rachel Notley, PC Interim Leader Ric McIver. (CBC)

The final Global News/Ipsos poll of the campaign showed that 33 per cent of Wildrose voters picked the New Democrats as their second choice, compared to just 21 per cent who selected the PCs. Though PC voters were more likely to choose Wildrose as their second choice, a large proportion of them also said they'd rather vote for the NDP.

In fact, removing either Wildrose or the PCs from the equation and distributing their votes according to this second choice polling would not have produced any winning, united right. Indeed, the NDP majority would have been larger if the party had run against a united right.

This could be the biggest obstacle for Kenney: the argument that Rachel Notley won because the right in Alberta was divided falls flat. Voters were looking for change after 44 years of PC rule. The NDP was that agent of change. And if Wildrose hadn't existed, enough of its voters would have gone to the NDP rather than re-elect the Tories.

The Kenney effect

It is an open question whether Jason Kenney, who was first elected to the House of Commons as a Reform MP, is himself enough of an agent of change to get Albertans back into the habit of voting PC.

And after rejecting the last PC takeover attempt, when Jim Prentice lured Danielle Smith and most of her Wildrose caucus to his side of the aisle in December 2014, are Wildrosers really ready to acquiesce two years later — and destroy their own party in the process?

Former Alberta Premier Jim Prentice with former Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith. (Jason Franson/Canadian Press)

It might be a lot to ask. Elections law in Alberta prevents parties from merging: whichever party immolates itself would need to hand over any money it had on hand to Elections Alberta. Wildrose had twice as much cash as the Tories did at the end of 2015, and have outpaced PC fundraising efforts by a very wide margin this year.

Instead, mutual self-destruction and the creation of a new party might be the better way to go.

"Both PC and Wildrose voters are resistant to an entity that looks like a 'take over' by the other," says Marc Henry, president of ThinkHQ Public Affairs. Based on his research in the province, he thinks "both parties' voters are far less resistant to a new party."

Unless the two old parties decide to make way for this new entity, Henry says, "the vote is fractured even further, guaranteeing an NDP government."

In which case Jason Kenney could indeed end up being the next leader of the Conservative Party: a new Conservative Party of Alberta.

Follow Éric Grenier @308dotcom and CBCPolitics @cbcpolitics on Twitter


Éric Grenier

Politics and polls

Éric Grenier is a senior writer and the CBC's polls analyst. He was the founder of ThreeHundredEight.com and has written for The Globe and Mail, Huffington Post Canada, The Hill Times, Le Devoir, and L’actualité.


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