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Between a rock and a hard place in Calgary-Foothills, foundering PCs' second-best hope is an NDP victory on Sept. 3

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Bob Hawkesworth

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The Alberta Progressive Conservative Party finds itself between a rock and a hard place in the looming Calgary-Foothills byelection.

If they fail to run a candidate in the Sept. 3 vote called by Premier Rachel Notley to replace former PC premier Jim Prentice, who resigned on election night as soon as it became apparent the 44-year Tory Dynasty had ended on his watch, they'll be dismissed as irrelevant political has-beens, ready to fade into history, never to return as government, like the Alberta Liberals, the United Farmers and Social Credit before them.

On the other hand, if they do run a candidate and the election goes badly, as seems likely to happen given public annoyance in the riding with Prentice's petulant departure on the night of the May 5 election, they risk the same fate in addition to aggravating their already parlous financial position.

What to do?

Chances are interim PC Leader Ric McIver will conclude the safer course is to cross his fingers, encourage the party to pick a candidate and hope for the best -- since in politics, a disaster later is almost universally seen as superior to a disaster right now

Indeed, the buzz is that later today the PCs will name Blair Houston, a former unsuccessful candidate for Calgary City Council and equally unsuccessful candidate for the PC nomination in another Calgary riding before the general election. The 40-year-old businessman has a profile, in other words, although not a particularly high one.

Houston -- or whomever the Tories name today -- will be facing off against New Democrat Bob Hawkesworth, Green Party of Alberta Leader Janet Keeping, Alberta Liberal Ali Bin Zahid, and as-yet-unnamed candidates from the Alberta Party and the Opposition Wildrose Party.

Hawkesworth, who won the NDP nomination vote on July 28, is well known in northwest Calgary, a large swath of which he represented for many years as a Calgary city councillor after serving two terms as an NDP MLA in nearby Calgary-Mountain View, from 1986 to 1993. He ran for mayor in 2010, flaming out spectacularly. But while he may not be a scintillating public speaker, Hawkesworth is a known quantity, well liked by many conservative voters in the northwest who had no problem marking a ballot for the Reform Party in one election and for Alderman Bob in the next.

If the instinct of Calgary-Foothills voters is in fact to go with the government, rather than with conservatives, Hawkesworth is likely to end up as a minister when Notley inevitably shuffles her cabinet this year or next.

Keeping is a lawyer and former executive director of the Alberta Civil Liberties Research Centre and president of the Sheldon Chumir Foundation for Ethics in Leadership. Bin Zahid is an electrical engineer.

Meanwhile, Alberta Party Leader Greg Clark will introduce his party's candidate at an 11 o'clock news conference this morning, and the Wildrose Party will hold a nomination vote this evening contested by three candidates -- John Huang, Kathy MacDonald and Prasad Panda. MacDonald is a former Calgary Police constable who ran for the Wildrose Party against Prentice in the 2014 byelection, Panda is a professional engineer and Suncor executive, and Huang is a well-known eye surgeon.

As for the lamentable Prentice, he is presumably seeking other opportunities, quite possibly in the banking industry. He was still the putative saviour of the PC Party when he was first elected to represent the riding in the Oct. 27, 2014, byelection called by his own party. And he was personally comfortably re-elected on May 5, but, as noted, pulled the plug on his political career the instant it became apparent he would no longer hold the province's top political job.

This means, right off the hop, that whoever is chosen to try to retain the party for the PCs is unlikely to have a heck of a lot of good will in the riding. Moreover, with only nine members in the Legislature and an opposition party that espouses much the same philosophy and would dearly like to see the right united on its terms, the PCs are at a vulnerable point in their history.

Making that worse is the sorry state of the party's finances -- which meet a common-sense definition of "broke" even if it doesn't quite come up to the legal standard. The party is said to be something like $1.7 million in debt, and with no hope of forming government any time soon, it’s going to be a big challenge to prime the donation pump.

There might be a few well-heeled donors out there willing to re-float the Tories, but it will be be hard for them to figure out a way to do it legally under Alberta's current election financing laws -- toughened up in the first piece of legislation passed by the Notley Government.

Moreover, Big-C Conservative supporters are going to be almost entirely focused on the Oct. 19 federal election when the New Democrat-selected byelection date rolls around. It's hard to imagine high-profile federal Conservatives, even a former provincial PC minister like Calgary Signal Hill Conservative candidate Ron Liepert, wanting to take the chance stepping into this particular briar patch.

That said, an NDP victory on Sept. 3 could have an interesting effect on the federal election campaign, which by then will be inching closer to its climax.

Who knows, if they can't win it themselves, the PCs probably prefer the thought of an NDP victory to a Wildrose success. That way, at least, they could argue the Wildrose Party led by former MP and Fort McMurray-Conklin MLA Brian Jean is just too dominated by rural politicians to compete with the NDP in the big city.

That, at least, would offer them some hope for the future -- however faint.

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

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