Thursday, June 14, 2007

Byelection Loss worries Alberta Tories

An 800 vote loss is hardly a landslide and provincially a 53 per cent share of the vote is not an indicator that the panic button should be pushed! Doer in Manitoba won handily with about 46 percent of the vote.

This article at least explains why the Conservatives lost the seat. It seems that the same rural city split that exists in Manitoba and Saskatchewan is now opening wider in Alberta. The city slickers do not see eye to eye with the ranchers and farmers from outside of Edmonton and Calgary. Here in Manitoba the NDP won big in Winnipeg but in rural southern Manitoba it won only one seat. However, the north and interlake still support the NDP.

Byelection loss has Alberta Tories worried
Kevin Libin, National Post
Published: Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Calgary • Alberta Progressive Conservatives woke up yesterday morning experiencing a strange new feeling: worry.

After three and a half decades of racking up 10 confident majorities in the province, angst isn't something Tories are used to; some younger ones have never experienced it in their lives. It's certainly not something you anticipate when you're buying a membership in the most successful political dynasty in the country's history. But after a Liberal victory on Tuesday night in a
byelection in the long-time riding of former premier Ralph Klein, the splendid feeling of waking up to a secure, politically predictable province may be something that Alberta's PCs do not savour again for a while.

"If we're not careful, I think the Liberals can form the next government," said Alan Hallman, one of Mr. Klein's key political organizers. "You've seen the history of this province. Once we turn, we turn en masse."

: ****It may be early for Tories to let worry turn into panic over their very existence. The seizure by 800 votes of Calgary-Elbow by Liberal Craig Cheffins is, after all, just one riding in a sea of PC hegemony, leaving the government 61 seats to the Liberals' 16.

Tory Jack Hayden demolished his Liberal opponent in a coincident race in DrumhellerStettler. And besides, upper-middle-class Calgary-Elbow has always been hard-won. Even when it was the turf of one of the province's most popular premiers, Liberals there always put up a respectable, if futile, fight.

But then, the defeat for Tory Brian Heninger in a riding that has nevertheless stayed consistently blue since its birth in 1971 is only the latest, most material blow to a PC government that appears to have lost its once invincible political mojo in Alberta's biggest, richest city.

"It's not the byelection I would put as much stock into. It's the trend line," said Duane Bratt, a political scientist at Calgary's Mount Royal College. "There's been a series of little steps, all going down."
After losing three Calgary ridings to the Liberals in 2004's election, Tory fortunes in Calgary took a turn for the worse in December's leadership race. The city's pick, former treasurer Jim Dinning, sewed up every riding in town but lost the race to Ed Stelmach, a farmer from up north and the last choice of Calgary voters. And according to some rural Stelmach supporters - who gloated afterward that they had properly stuck a thumb in the eye of the big city - that was exactly the point.

Then came Mr. Stelmach's Cabinet choices - dominantly rural, with just three Calgarians of 18 (even though the city represents a third of the province's population).

Next, an April budget that failed to live up to Mr. Stelmach's municipal funding guarantees launched Calgary Mayor Dave Bronconnier on a six-week smear campaign over what he labelled "one of the most significant broken promises ever perpetrated on Albertans."

Recent polls have the Tory party in a free fall here, down more than 19% in Calgary since January.
That had organizers in Calgary-Elbow straining to wrangle up candidates to run in what was once considered a safe seat before acclaiming Mr. Heninger, a Toyota dealer, in March.

"It used to be in an upscale Calgary riding, the fight for the nomination was hellacious because it was a ticket to the show," said one senior Tory strategist. "Here's the [former] premier's riding and nobody wanted to run."

And once on the hustings, things were evidently hostile enough that local reporters observed Mr. Heninger on one doorstep remarking that he would personally like to "choke" Mr. Stelmach for crimes against Calgary.

With even their own candidate unable to defend the government record, several Tories admitted ahead of the byelection that the bigger surprise would be if Mr. Heninger somehow managed to prevail.

"It was never there," Mr. Hallman said. "Brian Heninger was a tremendous candidate. But too much else got involved with all the issues at the provincial level and the civic level."

Still, byelections are an "easy protest vote," Mr. Bratt noted. "You send a message but the government doesn't change." And a careful read of voting patterns show that long-time Tories haven't switched wholesale to the Alberta Liberals (who suffer their own growing rump of doubters in the abilities of leader Kevin Taft) as much as they have simply stayed home.

"Most Tories still can't hold their nose hard enough to vote Liberal," said the strategist. "We're just not giving them any reason to come out and vote for us."

For that, Mr. Stelmach is lucky to have time. Despite Calgary's bad blood, his party enjoys 53% support provincewide, and the luxury of putting off an election till 2009.

If it comes next fall, as rumour has it, "a year is a really long time in politics," Mr. Bratt noted. There is still an opportunity for the Premier to patch things up with a city that, rightly or wrongly, feels snubbed by the party it once adored.

That is, if Mr. Stelmach is interested - and if those of his supporters who seem to so delight in Calgary's comeuppance will allow it.

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