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Will simply uniting Alberta's right add up to victory over the NDP? Not necessarily

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Susan Elliott

Will simply uniting the right add up to instant victory over the NDP the next time Alberta marches off to the polls? Not necessarily.

Longtime Progressive Conservative strategist Susan Elliott recently asked this question in a thoughtful post on her blog, From the Conservative Kitchen, raising some interesting and important questions Alberta's PCs in particular really ought to be asking themselves.

Elliott knows a thing or two about this stuff. She's a "principal," as business partners are called nowadays, in an issues management company called Strategy Portal, but more importantly she is a former PC party campaign manager with a long a respected pedigree in conservative circles.

At the core of the argument in her blog post is the thought that just because PC voters and Wildrose voters are to the right of the NDP in the normal course of events, they are not necessarily the same people, or even particularly sympathetic to each other's worldview.

Yes, it's true that if you simply combine the 28 per cent of voters who went Wildrose on May 5, 2015, with the 24 per cent who voted PC in that election, that adds up to a higher number than the 40 per cent who voted NDP, Elliott observed. But, she asked, "is it that easy?" Her conclusion is that it's not.

As an aside, I had to smile nostalgically when I read this because it reminded me so powerfully of the days Alberta New Democrats and Alberta Liberals sat around arguing with themselves and each other about pretty much this same thing. These kinds of arguments, of course, tend to get settled by events like the one that happened on May 5.

Regardless, let's continue with Elliott's line of thinking, as she goes on to ask two important questions:

  1. Would the PC base, those who stuck with the party in the low-water year of 2015, be able to live with "the more right-wing personality" of the Wildrose Party?
  2. Would those who left the PCs for the Wildrose, many of them in frustration and disgust at its centrist positioning, be able to live with such a marriage?

I'm guilty, of course, of putting words in Elliott's mouth because I think her description of the Wildrose Party having a "more right-wing personality" considerably understates the situation. So you should really read her argument for yourself.

But she does take this discussion where it needs to go, particularly for PC supporters, and that is to the question of why the voters the PCs lost in 2015, compared to the party's results in 2012, didn't appear to go to the Wildrose.

She quotes pollster Eric Grenier's conclusion that since many Wildrosers in 2015 gave the NDP, the Liberals or the Alberta Party as their second choice -- anyone but the PCs, as it were -- even a combined conservative party would have lost to the NDP.

Of course, 2019 won't be 2015, and Albertans may be in a mood to once again change their government. But if they are, they still might hesitate to replace them with an extremist, rural-oriented, socially conservative and highly ideological party like the Wildrose.

This would be especially so if, as Elliott suggests, the NDP decides to redistribute ridings to reduce the undeniable over-representation of rural voters that now exists in Alberta. "They are more likely to adjust the formula to yield more urban and suburban seats," she correctly concludes -- indeed, it could be argued they will have little choice.

"The only party that could today combat the NDP in those multiple urban seats is the Progressive Conservative Party," Elliott concludes. "The Wildrose demonstrably cannot. In the last two elections combined, they have won just four urban or suburban seats."

Elliott is also correct, I believe, to argue that most Albertans, particularly those who live in cities and larger urban centres don't see themselves as particularly "right wing" or "left wing," but as centrist pragmatists.

So there's no doubt that in 2019, the NDP and the opposition parties will be fighting it out for that centrist vote -- which explains some of the recent NDP strategies, such as their cautious decision not to increase resource royalties.

To go beyond Elliott's arguments, this is why the Wildrose Party seems so desperate to press its marriage suit on the PCs as quickly as possible, while they're still led by an interim leader, Ric McIver, and still reeling from the unexpected outcome of the 2015 election.

Wildrose strategists know that if Brian Jean is the groom, the more time passes, the worse he'll look to the potential bride.

Similarly, the market fundamentalist ideological machine -- Thinktankistan, the mainstream media and the academic right -- want to marginalize the Tories because they see that party as too centrist and pragmatic. What better way to eliminate that problem than by subsuming them in a radical, but renamed, Wildrose Party?

They're willing to take the chance of dealing with that small-c conservative enemy first, before they turn to what they see as the Main Enemy, the NDP, in the hopes of leaving dissatisfied centrist voters with no real choice on the right and thereby winning all the marbles for their radical program.

The possibility some PCs may view a hostile reverse takeover with less enthusiasm than Jean and have their own unity plans as a result may account for the long and nervous letter sent yesterday to supporters by the Wildrose leader.

Wildrose constituency associations are encouraged, but not required, to seek out grassroots Tories in their communities and begin informal merger discussions, Jean wrote. "A few recent developments are, however, troubling," he went on.

"Some organized groups, outside of either the Wildrose or PC grassroots, are trying to commandeer and direct these conversations," he said in the email. "This misguided attempt to shortcut deliberate, meaningful, and personal conversations between party members has been attempted before. It was a disastrous elite-driven top-down 'unification' attempt by MLAs that ultimately led to the NDP majority" -- which, not incidentally, made Jean's leadership possible.

"Please do not allow the allure of a short cut, presented by outsiders, to derail what must be a transparent, grassroots-driven process," he told his supporters.

Hmmmm… What's this then? A reverse reverse takeover by ambitious Tories? The "Alberta Prosperity Fund?" Or some kind of opposition #kudatah?

Inquiring minds want to know.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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