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Strategist Stephen Carter's reputation instantly boosts Sandra Jansen's still-unannounced PC leadership bid

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Stephen Carter

It must be great to have a reputation so highly polished everyone simply assumes your next project is all but guaranteed to be a contender.

Political rainmaker Stephen Carter -- "outspoken political operative," as the Calgary Herald rather snidely put it -- is such a person, whether or not his reputation is entirely deserved.

So when Carter told the Herald he's been "providing assistance and advice" to Calgary North-West Progressive Conservative MLA Sandra Jansen in advance of a possible run for the PC leadership, her credibility among the pundits as a potential Jason Kenney challenger soared immediately.

I have an alternative theory, however, and that is that Carter's greatest talent may not be organizing political campaigns so much as picking the right candidates for whom to organize campaigns.

For, let it be said here, Jansen would be an excellent candidate to lead the Tories whomever happened to be advising her, at least if you happen to think the PCs need to hove to the centre of the political sea if they wish to keep their ship afloat.

A former television new broadcaster known to be progressive on social issues, although not necessarily quite as progressive on economic ones, Jansen would certainly appeal to a certain kind of urban conservative in Alberta. She is also a former cabinet minister -- although it was Alison Redford's cabinet in which she served, so it is unclear whether that would be an asset or a liability.

On the other hand, if you think the PCs need to swing hard right, especially on the usual social conservative enthusiasms, and that conservatives of any stripe cannot succeed against the Alberta NDP unless they are all united under a single banner, then I guess Kenney would be your man. Certainly, if he were to win the PC leadership, he would be more appealing to the base of the Opposition Wildrose Party, since as a former Harper Conservative he is essentially a Wildroser himself.

So if Jansen decides to run -- and she told me last night she is "pretty close to a final decision" -- this will mean there's a real contrast in personal style, political philosophy and outlook on the future of the PC Party between two leading candidates.

It will also make the PC race considerably more interesting, not least because there is no love lost between Jansen and Kenney.

Back in June, Jansen told the CBC that if Kenney won the leadership, bringing his social conservative baggage with him, "I would leave. I would not be a member of the party any more."

"Jason has never been a friend of the Progressive Conservative Party," she said at the time. "There's nothing progressive about Jason Kenney."

That may account for why Carter stated his intentions in a podcast with this zinger: "I want to kick the shit out of Jason Kenney."

For his part, Kenney has promised to serve whatever leader wins. I heard him say so himself last week in St. Albert, the same night he promised to resign as an MP this Friday. However, in reality, I think Kenney hanging around a PC Party led by Jansen is about as likely as Jansen hanging around a PC Party led by Kenney.

Carter apparently decided to cast caution to the wind because another campaign had gotten wind of his discussions with Jansen and was leaking it all over anyway.

Carter is, without question, outspoken, and his inclination to say what he thinks on social media has gotten him in trouble more than once.

Named a national campaign strategist for for Hill and Knowlton Strategies in 2012, Carter's reputation as a political mastermind -- or, as he might put it, a master of "post-partisan politics" -- rests principally on three pillars:

  • Former prime minister Joe Clark's political successes in the federal Calgary Centre riding in the early 2000s
  • Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi's successful come-from-behind campaign in 2010
  • Redford's unexpected victory in the PC leadership in the fall of 2011 and her subsequent 2012 general election success

There are certainly those in the Nenshi campaign who say Carter played only a minor role in that effort. Nor have all Carter campaigns have gone down in history as unprecedented successes. But who even remembers Martha Hall Findlay's 2013 effort to lead the federal Liberals?

Be that as it may, I don't think anyone can begrudge him his successes for Redford, in which his role was central, and for whom he served as chief of staff for a short spell after her general election victory. A strategy with which Carter has been associated is helping catapult second- or third-place candidates into contention through the timely release of a favourable poll.

Whether as some think the PC Party's complicated new rules were designed to get in the way of a candidate like Kenney -- who essentially wants to lead the party so that he can shut it down and merge it with the Wildrose -- is not entirely clear.

The new rules may make a Kenney victory a little less likely, but he is a formidable campaigner, and the idea of a united right has a desperately seductive appeal to conservatives of all stripes who are still shaking their heads in disbelief at the NDP's 2015 election victory.

So I am not so sure the rules will hinder Kenney or help a candidate like Jansen as much as some pundits seem to think.

At least one potential candidate seems to have dropped out as a result of the rule changes.

Daveberta.ca author Dave Cournoyer reported yesterday that Calgary lawyer Doug Schweitzer has pulled the plug on the idea of running for the PC leadership, citing in a memo to supporters that "I am concerned about the party’s commitment to a fair leadership process. In particular, the rules that have been established have raised some serious concerns that go to the legitimacy of the process."

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

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