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It's hard to imagine the Alberta Liberal Party surviving the existential crisis of its past few days

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Sometime Alberta Liberal leadership candidate Nolan Crouse (David Climenhaga photo)

About the kindest thing you can say about the Alberta Liberal Party right now is that it's facing an existential crisis.

The day before yesterday the sole known candidate to lead the once-important party quit the race without explanation.

The deadline for nominations is 5 p.m. this afternoon. Up until St. Albert Mayor Nolan Crouse pulled the plug with a vague email, it wasn't really expected any other serious candidates would surface. And actually, with only a single candidate, you couldn't even properly call what was going on a race.

About all Crouse had to say was that "while many may wonder the reason(s) for this decision, the reasons will be kept private and I will provide 'no comment' as to these varied questions and associated speculation."

With the apparently completely unexpected departure of Crouse, a party with a pedigree that includes large majorities in the early years of the 20th Century and a recent high-water mark of 32 seats under Laurence Decore in 1993 seems to have essentially imploded.

Whatever you think about Crouse, he's an undeniably energetic retail politician and as such probably the best hope for a seemingly all-but-moribund political entity. But in less than 48 hours, thanks to Crouse's unexplained last-minute withdrawal, the Alberta Liberals have gone from the spring of hope to the winter of despair.

The backstory: After spells under the leadership of such worthies as Principal Group executive Grant Mitchell, now a Senator, former Tory minister Nancy MacBeth, University of Alberta professor Kevin Taft (perhaps still the best premier Alberta never had) and Calgary physician David Swann, the Liberals have been on a pretty steady downhill slide.

Things really went sour for the party after former Progressive Conservative cabinet secretary Raj Sherman won an anyone-can-vote leadership contest in September 2011. The erratic Sherman had defeated two solid Liberal MLAs -- Hugh MacDonald and Laurie Blakeman -- either of whom could have found a way to keep the party alive, if not exactly thriving.

Having steered the party onto the rocks, and even briefly renamed it the Liberalberta Party, Sherman abandoned the helm in January 2015. He didn't bother running for re-election that May in the election that would bring an NDP majority to power under Premier Rachel Notley.

Nowadays, Sherman is occasionally spotted tending the sick and the wounded in a couple of Edmonton hospital Emergency Rooms, a job that by all accounts the Edmonton physician is quite good at.

Swann returned as interim leader in 2015, emerging from the wreckage after the May 5 election as the party's only MLA. At 67, though, he would very much like to retire at the end of his current term as MLA for Calgary-Mountain View.

The downward-trending Liberal seat count since the 1993 general election suggests a party in terminal decline: 18 in 1997 under Mitchell, seven in 2001 under MacBeth, 16 in 2004 under Taft, nine in 2008 under Taft, five in 2012 under Sherman and one in 2015 with Swann left holding Sherman's medical bag.

Which brings us back to where we started. The party was badly shaken by the flighty flight of Crouse, in whom many supporters had invested high hopes.

After hints dropped on social media, a rumour surfaced yesterday that another St. Albert resident -- former PC deputy premier Thomas Lukaszuk -- was about to run. Alas for the Liberals, it was not to be. Lukaszuk had denied everything by mid-day, noting, "there will be better opportunities." (Viz., leadership of the Alberta Party, which Lukaszuk is also reputed to be interested in.)

Also yesterday, the CBC reported the party had confirmed "two last-minute candidates." David Khan and Kerry Cundal, both human rights lawyers from Calgary and both former candidates, he provincial and she federal, were "vying" to enter the race, the CBC said. Vying? Dragged kicking and screaming, more like.

Not so long ago, at least, Khan was telling folks he liked his legal work too much to give it up to try to rebuild a foundering party.

And then there’s Jacob Huffman, whose Facebook page says he's a University of Calgary student. Since "the only person running dropped out today," Huffman Facebooked, "I'm for filling my democratic duty and running for leader of the Alberta Liberal Party."

There's only one problem: "I cannot afford to pay the fees required."

Huffman’s enthusiasm notwithstanding, it's hard to imagine the Alberta Liberal Party surviving the setbacks of the past few days.

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

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