Alberta Conservative leadership candidate Doug Horner

Now it’s a horserace. Yesterday morning, Alberta Deputy Premier Doug Horner made it official by announcing he too is seeking the leadership of the Progressive Conservative Party and thus the premiership of the province.

Comfortably casting himself as an unthreatening moderate from the progressive side of the Alberta PC Party, the better to counter the mean-spirited vision of former finance minister Ted Morton, Horner’s announcement emphasized his commitment to the party’s big-tent tradition of openness to Red Tories and fiscal hardliners alike.

“I am not an ideological right-wing conservative — never have been and never profess to be,” the Spruce Grove-Sturgeon-St. Albert MLA and advanced education minister told the Calgary Herald a day before his formal announcement, a statement certain to curl lips both among the Wildrose Alliance’s true believers and within Morton’s angry camp.

But arguably that’s an OK place to be for a serious candidate with a reputation for quiet competence like Horner. After all, this is a moment when Alberta Conservatives and many uncommitted voters are unhappy both with the shambolic efforts of Premier Ed Stelmach and the radical turn being taken by Alberta’s far right in both Conservative and Wildrose circles.

Horner’s moderate appeal obviously worried Morton, who may have concluded that many members of his natural constituency have already abandoned the Conservatives for the Alliance and are unlikely to come back to help him. At any rate, he quickly made an effort to recast himself as a kinder, gentler, mellower, and really quite moderate fellow.

In an interview with the always co-operative Calgary Herald, Morton claimed to be ideologically pure no more. “Ironically, I find myself somewhat in the middle now,” he pleaded to the Herald’s reporter. “It’s very different from the 2006 (leadership campaign) where I was pretty thoroughly the challenger on the right. … If either the right or the left wings expect ideological purity from me, I’m probably not going to get their vote.”

This is a far cry from the Morton who just days ago is said to have led a caucus revolt against the premier over what he perceived as insufficiently brutal cuts in the upcoming 2011 provincial budget. That rebellion prompted Stelmach’s unexpected January 25 decision to step aside, and Morton’s announcement two days later that he would quit as finance minister and pursue the premiership.

You can believe Morton’s claims of newfound moderation if you wish, but you have to agree with his assessment “the success of the PC party for 40 years has been as a big-tent party.” But if that is right, Horner is clearly the more likely candidate to keep it that way.

The two candidates in the race so far make an interesting contrast:

Both are the scions of successful political families — Horner’s in Alberta; Morton’s in Wyoming.

But as a fiscal hawk with no time for Red Tories, the dour Morton seems likely to divide Conservatives; Horner is committed to keeping them together — though whether he can do so in the face of the Wildrose challenge is another matter. But if the Conservatives split under Morton, it seems unlikely moderate Tories will just drop out of politics and let rightists have the run of the place. They will take their political skills elsewhere.

Horner built his reputation on loyalty to his leader. Morton seems loyal only to Morton — leastways, he had no problem turning against Stelmach when it suited him.

Morton appears to have little time for those who do not share his ideologically certain vision. Horner, as minister of agriculture, advanced education and deputy premier, has been businesslike and open to all stakeholders.

Morton’s ideological dogma made him push a budget that repelled even the conservative Stelmach and would have meant big budget cuts for municipalities, thus higher municipal taxes and deteriorating local services. This may not matter much, of course, to voters in his stomping grounds of hobby farms and wealthy estates west of Calgary. Horner is MLA for a constituency that includes two separate municipalities that serve as Edmonton-area bedroom suburbs, and seems to get it about the financial needs of municipalities and their residents.

Horner is 50. Morton will be 62 next month.

These differences all suggest Horner could successfully contrast the Conservatives with their challenger on the right and their competitors on the left — a better formula for success than racing the Wildrose Alliance to the lowest common economic denominator.

After all, Horner is likely be a more palatable choice to those many politically uncommitted Albertans who nevertheless will seek strategic ways to keep the hard right out of power.

That said, he’s also clearly the Tory candidate the Wildrose Alliance would prefer to face for the simple reason he presents a starker contrast with that party’s youthful and photogenic leader, 40-year-old Danielle Smith, and the policies she espouses. Moreover, Wildrose strategists want desperately to be able to claim no “true conservative” can be elected PC leader.

So while Morton might chase away traditional Alberta PC supporters in the centre, he might also be able to hang onto those who have switched their loyalty to the Wildrose Alliance, or are thinking about it.

With several other appealing candidates likely to emerge in the next few days, possibly including former Environment Minister Gary Mar and Justice Minister Alison Redford, the outcome of this race is far from certain.

Still, Horner’s relative strength is the key to Morton’s success or failure. If Morton is to win, he needs to do so on the first ballot because his support is unlikely to grow after that. The more moderate candidates there are, the more likely he will be to pull off that feat.

If the contest goes to a second ballot, however, support will likely move to Horner or another of the moderates. But for the first time in as long as anyone can remember, that is not a guarantee of the premiership after the next general election.

Still, such uncertainties notwithstanding, Alberta’s Conservatives could do far worse than choose Horner as their leader. And the longer Albertans have to think about this contest, the better the capable and matter-of-fact Horner is going to look.

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

David J. Climenhaga

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga is a journalist and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. He left journalism after the strike...