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Have Alberta's PCs sold only 23,700 memberships? If so, it's bad news for the frontrunner

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Ric McIver

An intriguing rumour -- impossible for an outsider to verify -- did the rounds of Alberta political circles yesterday. To wit: That the Progressive Conservative Party has sold fewer than 24,000 memberships since the 2014 leadership race began.

If the three candidates have managed to sell only 23,700 memberships, this is not very good news for a party that hopes somehow to cling to its role as Alberta's Natural Governing Party for another generation.

No matter how you slice it, it is particularly bad news for former banker, lobbyist and federal cabinet minister Jim Prentice, who is generally acknowledged to be the frontrunner in the contest, with the support of almost the entire elected PC caucus.

Even if Prentice manages to win, a victory on a pathetically low turnout like this is not going to do much to cement his credentials with wavering voters as a steady and inspiring leader. And remember, however many memberships are sold, the number of members who actually bother to vote is bound to be be considerably lower.

But to make things more scary for Prentice's team, the lower the vote goes, the greater the chances are that he can be knocked off -- most likely by second-place candidate Ric McIver, the MLA for Calgary Hayes and formerly the infrastructure minister in cashiered premier Alison Redford's cabinet.

If it's close enough on Sept. 6 that the vote must go to a second ballot on Sept. 20, and if candidate Thomas Lukaszuk, MLA for Edmonton-Castle Downs and Redford's former deputy premier and labour minister, throws his support to McIver, Prentice could be done for.

I'm betting that McIver has sold almost has many memberships as Prentice up to now, a situation that with a low turnout could result in yet another surprise defeat of the establishment candidate in a Tory leadership race -- exactly the circumstances that brought the catastrophic Redford to the leadership in 2011.

McIver now appears to be turning to niche marketing to target pockets of potential supporters -- for example, religious social conservatives, with whom he has been associated in the past, public employees with public-sector pension plans, whom he told Wednesday would see their pensions left alone under his leadership, and supporters of the soon-to-close Michener Centre for developmentally disabled adults in Red Deer, which he promised to keep open yesterday.

Each of those policies could be worth a couple of thousand votes or more to McIver, easily enough to turn the tide for him in a tight vote.

This puts Prentice's unexpected announcement Wednesday that he would give away free Tory Party memberships to anyone who wanted them in a more understandable context.

Notwithstanding Prentice's claims that this is standard operating procedure in party leadership votes, giving away memberships on this scale is really unprecedented. But Prentice needs the vote not to be embarrassingly low if he wins, and he may require the vote not to be embarrassingly low in order to win. If he has to suffer the humiliation of appearing to buy votes, so be it -- desperate times call for desperate measures!

Now, the situation may not be quite as grim for the Tories in general and Prentice in particular as an extremely low number like 23,700 makes it sound.

Members if the PC Legislative Caucus are poised to hand in the memberships they have sold over the past few weeks, and that will likely mean another 5,000 or so memberships for the party. Since almost everyone in the caucus is on the record as a Prentice supporter, in theory all these should be Prentice votes. If they actually vote, that is.

Still, with less than three weeks left in which memberships may be sold, it remains highly possible, perhaps even likely, that the party will limp to its first leadership vote with only 30,000 legitimate memberships and a few thousand more undependable Prentice freebies.

That's a far cry from the 100,000-membership benchmark Prentice set for his supporters back in June, not to mention the 144,000 members who voted in 2006 in the leadership race that chose Ed Stelmach as premier.

The PC leadership race is finally starting to get interesting -- though hardly for reasons that can bring any joy to Alberta's remaining Tory supporters.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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