This is where the Albertans deciding Jason Kenney’s future live (think small)

Premier Jason Kenney addressed his party on April 9 at the formal launch of his leadership review process. (CBC)

The fate of Premier Jason Kenney rests in the hands of fewer than 1.5 per cent of Albertans — those with valid United Conservative Party memberships. But even within that small, politically active subset of the population, there’s an outsized say in some corners of the province. 

Emphasis on corners, and edges and the less densely-packed middle.

To maintain his post as leader of a province dominated by its two million-person cities, Kenney must soak up healthy shares of leadership review votes in places like Cardston in Alberta’s deep south, Rimbey in the centre and way up in Fort McMurray. A resident of the Cardston–Siksika electoral district is three times more likely than a Calgarian to be a UCP member, and nearly seven times more likely than an Edmontonian, according to internal party data reviewed by CBC News.

Party’s power base

According to a party list of 59,409 members as of March 31 — days before leadership review ballots were sent out — that southern riding has 2,303 UCP members, the most of any of Alberta’s 87 constituencies. The top 12 ridings for UCP memberships are all outside the main cities. 

All told, the United Conservatives are predominantly a party of smaller-town and rural members; 60 per cent live outside Calgary and Edmonton. And it’s in those pockets that right-wing frustration has mainly flared against Kenney, due to his pandemic management that was too restrictive for libertarian-minded conservatives, as well as what critics see as failures to wall off Alberta from Ottawa’s influence and give proper care and feeding to the UCP grassroots.

“Ultimately, the voters are in the wrong places for Jason Kenney to expect a really good number (in the leadership review),” said Vitor Marciano, an aide to MLA Brian Jean, a leading internal critic of Kenney.  

Rocking the vote in the less-disgruntled urban and suburban ridings won’t get it done, the veteran conservative campaigner says. 

“A really high Kenney number in Calgary–Lougheed could be cancelled out by an OK anti-Kenney number in Fort McMurray–Wood Buffalo.”

Marciano lists those constituencies with purpose. Calgary–Lougheed is Kenney’s own riding, with a paltry 472 UCP members; the other is Jean’s, with 1,648. The tally in the former Wildrose leader’s political district ranks third behind Cardston–Siksika and Rimbey–Rocky Mountain House–Sundre, represented by Kenney’s deputy House leader Joseph Schow and Environment Minister Jason Nixon, respectively.

Those three ridings enjoyed surges in memberships because of hotly-contested candidate nomination contests. Actually, make that curtailed nomination contests in two of them, because the Jean-friendly challengers to the Kenney loyalists in Cardston and Rimbey were separately disqualified because of controversial past remarks or associations, letting Schow and Nixon win by acclamation.

Jodie Gateman, who had hoped to overtake Schow, says she had enlisted hundreds of new members for her nomination earlier this spring. Then, after her disqualification, hundreds more became members to register for Kenney’s review. 

In the Rimbey riding, ousted contender Tim Hoven says his backers are similarly eager to cast ballots against Kenney. 

Along with Jean’s riding, these three supposed hotbeds of anti-Kenney sentiment represent more than 10 per cent of the party’s total membership.

The UCP does not publicly release a riding-by-riding breakdown of its members. However, the party shared this data with Jean’s team during its formal protest of the leadership review’s mail-in ballot format. 

CBC News requested this data from Jean’s camp, to understand what numbers lay behind Marciano’s recent public assertions that the rural-heavy membership numbers would make success for Kenney an uphill climb. The party did not dispute the CBC’s information. (The list was updated slightly after March 31, so this does not perfectly conform to the number and breakdown of ballots sent out to UCP members in April.)

Of course, it’s overly simplistic to say that Jason Kenney stands to get supported by urban UCPers, and opposed by rural ones; there are no doubt a share of disaffected members in the big cities, and pro-Kenney stalwarts in the countryside.

United Conservatives vote during the plenary sessions of the party’s 2019 annual meeting. A mail-in ballot this spring has asked members if they approve of Jason Kenney remaining as leader. (Dave Chidley/The Canadian Press/CBC News illustration)

Also, one of the laziest shorthands in Alberta politics is to brand everything outside Calgary and Edmonton as “rural” — people in cities like Lethbridge, Grande Prairie and the bedroom communities that ring the capital tend to share more political traits with the major urban centres than with folks in Starland County. 

The premier’s crew is banking on solid support from the St. Alberts and Red Deers out there, as well as those in the city who are wary of the party ditching their Calgary-based premier in favour of someone more solidly from the less buttoned-down Wildrose wing of this fractious coalition. 

“These are places where our internal numbers show strong support for the premier,” said Brock Harrison, the premier’s communications director, on leave from government to work on his boss’s leadership retention bid — a campaign with many of the trappings of a traditional leadership campaign, like paid staff and a makeshift call centre for voter ID.

Harrison acknowledges that some of the UCP caucus’s anti-Kenney MLAs and fellow organizers have helped recruit a hefty collection of members. But the Kenney aide also says the team is more confident that the restless mood within the party from last fall and earlier this year has cooled down. He points to Kenney’s handling of COVID’s Omicron wave without new restrictions — in fact, dropping Alberta’s mask and vaccination rules before most provinces — and the improving Alberta economy and provincial balance sheet. 

The premier’s team has lately been confident enough that he’ll survive the leadership review that they let him travel to an Ottawa political conference and federal Conservative leadership debate on the final weekend before the voting deadline, and Kenney and his lieutenants have been publicly musing about the consequences for the MLAs who call publicly for his head. 

Even Marciano refers to the struggles Kenney will face to score a “good number” rather than a simple win — a signal that while the premier may technically win a majority in this yes-or-no vote, the question then becomes whether his margin is strong enough for him to legitimately remain at the helm.

(The Ralph Klein line may prove instructive; in 2006, the then-premier announced he’d step down shortly after receiving support from only 55 per cent of Progressive Conservatives.)

The UCP’s soft spots

This rare glimpse into the geographic breakdown of the UCP’s membership can reveal more to Albertans than a few clues about how Kenney will fare. It also speaks to the local empire-building and hustle of some UCP MLAs — like Innisfail–Sylvan Lake’s Devin Dreeshen, who left cabinet amid reports of his bad behaviour but may be in Kenney’s better books for having a 1,542-member constituency; or veteran minister Ric McIver, whose Calgary–Hays boasts only 333 members, second-fewest among all UCP-held ridings.

It also reveals in even greater detail the moribund state of the United Conservatives in Edmonton, where 19 of 20 seats are NDP orange.

According to an old Tory membership list from the early- to mid-2000s obtained by this writer, Klein’s old coalition used to have more members in Edmonton than in Calgary, a sign of how politically pluralistic and engaged the capital was not so long ago. Now, only about 6,900 Edmontonians hold UCP cards, compared with nearly 17,000 Calgarians and 36,000 from the rest of the province.

When the ballots are all counted and the results announced on May 18, don’t expect the party to release a riding-by-riding breakdown of how United Conservatives voted. It may be wiser to listen around the province for where the cheers and the moans are emanating from.

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