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Danielle Smith will have a tricky challenge if elected leader, says RDP instructor

UCP leader to be announced on Thursday night
Candidates, left to right, Todd Loewen, Danielle Smith, Rajan Sawhney, Rebecca Schulz, Leela Aheer, Travis Toews, and Brian Jean, attend the United Conservative Party of Alberta leadership candidate’s debate in Medicine Hat in July. (File photo from The Canadian Press)p

If Danielle Smith wins the United Conservative Party leadership as many expect, she will have her work cut out for her, says a Red Deer Polytechnic political science instructor.

John Kennair, who also teaches criminal law at RDP, said Smith appears to have successfully appealed to former Wildrose Party supporters, fiscal conservatives, neo-conservatives and, to a lesser extent, perhaps, social conservatives, and he believes she will win.

Also in the running are former members of Kenney’s cabinet, Travis Toews, Rebecca Schulz, Rajan Sawhney and Lella Aheer. Todd Loewen, who was kicked out of cabinet last year for criticizing Kenney, and former Wildrose Party leader and early front-runner Brian Jean round out the field.

While Smith may have found a base for winning the leadership, it is a small sampling of voters and their views are mostly not representative of Alberta voters as a whole, said Kennair.

About 124,000 eligible voters have been casting ballots by mail and others can vote in person at five locations across the province on Thursday. Results will be announced that night in Calgary.

“She’s definitely holding on to the alt-right side of that grouping,” he said.

“So, it will be interesting to see where she goes with things because what the party wants and what the public wants are two different things,” said Kennair, who unsuccessfully sought the nomination for the federal Conservatives in the Edmonton-St. Albert riding in 2007.

“It’s going to be difficult for her to roll back from rallying her base, where she gets her support to win a leadership, to try winning over the people of Alberta.

“And she’s going to have to soften (her position) because most Albertans don’t believe what she’s been talking about.”

Smith, who was former Wildrose Party leader before crossing the floor with most of her party’s MLAs to join the ruling PCs in 2015, has appealed to disaffected conservatives and controversially proposed an Alberta sovereignty act to allow the province to ignore federal laws and court orders deemed not in its interests.

Smith has also promised to refuse any COVID-19 health restrictions and to fire the Alberta Health Services governing board for botching the pandemic response.

Should Smith win she will be not the only politician in recent memory who has staked out a hard-right position to win a leadership – only to face the difficult task of edging back towards the centre.

Former Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole attempted to make that pivot but lost to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in last fall’s federal election and then was ousted as leader. His successor, Pierre Poilievre now faces the same task, said Kennair.

While Smith is the front-runner, she does not have a lock on the leadership. The winner must get at least 50 per cent of the vote. A preferential ballot system is being used in which voters can pick as many other candidates in order of preference that they want.

With the preferential ballot system, another candidate may come from behind, as Ed Stelmach did in 2006 when he picked up support from those who did not want to see Jim Dinning or Ted Morton become leader.

If a similar scenario develops, Kennair could see a less controversial candidate win, such as former finance minister Toews.

However, Kennair doubts that will happen. “At this point right now, I think it’s a pretty done deal that most UCPers are supporting Danielle.”

— With files from The Canadian Press

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