Alberta Finance Minister Ted Morton

Alberta Finance Minister Ted Morton successfully portrayed himself as an arch-typical Western gunslinger yesterday when he mused aloud in the Calgary media about going toe to toe with Wildrose Alliance Leader Danielle Smith in the new Okotoks-High River riding in the next provincial election, which is surely coming sooner than later.

In reality, however, Morton’s talk of seeking the Conservative nomination in the area of well-heeled bedroom suburbs and million-dollar hobby ranches south of Calgary was more likely motivated by a simple instinct for self-preservation.

Morton’s Western bravado notwithstanding, his chances of getting re-elected in Okotoks-High River are probably marginally better than in Chestermere-Rocky View, the re-drawn version of his current Foothills-Rocky View riding.

Smith, who does not now have a seat in the provincial Legislature, announced her plans to run in Okotoks-High River last fall.

In either place, Morton’s re-election in the face of the Wildrose challenge — which is particularly strong in well-off suburban Calgary-area ridings — is no sure bet.

Still, for the normally impeccably dressed, Los Angeles-born academic and ideologue to successfully pull off an imitation of a high-plains drifter at least deserves rave reviews as political theatre, even if it’s unlikely to much to improve Morton’s electoral chances come March 2012, or whenever it is the premier dares to call a general election.

Naturally, the Calgary Herald swallowed the bait hook, line and sinker, portraying the putative contest as a “rural rumble,” and the rest of Alberta’s commercial media has bobbed along in the Herald’s wake.

After all, Morton, once a mainstay of the University of Calgary’s taxpayer-supported “Calgary School” of loony-right economic and political fantasists, is the neo-liberal poster boy of Stelmach’s bumbling cabinet. Smith is a former Fraser Institute apparatchik, which is basically the same thing without the PhD. Both are beloved by the province’s instinctively right-wing mainstream media.

Hence the Herald’s over-blown characterization of the potential election scrap in Okotoks-High River as a “clash of conservative champions.” Well, at least they didn’t call them titans!

Given the vote totals in the pre-redistribution versions of both electoral districts, a Conservative candidate like Morton should have been safe in either. He won in 2008 by 57 per cent of the vote in Foothills-Rocky View – 6,916 votes to 5,130 for all opposition parties combined. Voter turnout was 45 per cent, which is respectable by Alberta standards.

The bitterly disillusioned George Groeneveld, the current Highwood MLA who was cashiered from Stelmach’s cabinet for reasons of pure political convenience, won in 2008 by better than 65 per cent of the vote on a pathetic 36-per-cent voter turnout — 7,715 to 4,135 for all opposition parties combined.

But that was then and this is now. Groeneveld, despite being a little cute about his plans, is not going to run again for Stelmach’s party. When he doesn’t, he’ll probably vote for Smith. So will many of his Conservative supporters, furious at his treatment by the premier’s Northern Alberta inner circle.

Moreover, many voters in the riding who normally back the traditional opposition parties will vote Wildrose just for sport.

Finally, the prospect of a real contest will attract many electors who didn’t bother to make the effort to vote last time. So look for much higher voter turnout percentages — never good news for a governing party.

Ultra-Conservative and well-heeled voters in the expensive bedroom suburbs that dominate both ridings — notwithstanding the “rural” appellation predictably and misleadingly trotted out by the media — clearly find Smith’s brand of hard-line market fundamentalism appealing. This must be particularly frustrating to Morton, who represents the same kind of thinking in Stelmach’s cabinet.

Regardless, this all adds up to bad news for the Conservatives, especially in Morton’s current territory. A case can be made that Tory prospects are likely to be marginally better in Okotoks-High River than in Chestermere-Rocky View, offering Morton a forlorn hope of re-election.

But well-placed sources in the Wildrose Alliance say they don’t particularly care where Morton runs, they’re confident they’re wearing the right boots to kick his butt in either riding.

The auguries being what they are, they are probably right.

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

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe...