Don’t count Ted Morton out.
It looks as if Dr. Morton, the former University of Calgary professor who once described himself as “every liberal’s nightmare, a right-winger with a PhD,” will be the only survivor from the 2006 race to replace Premier Ed Stelmach as leader of the Alberta Progressive Conservative Party.
The current Alberta Tory leadership race is shaping up as a battle for the heart and soul of the party between the neo-conservative far right, represented by Dr. Morton, and more moderate Red Tories, represented by virtually everyone else in the race except maybe Doug Griffiths.
Overall, moreover, Red Tories probably enjoy a numerical edge among the party’s membership, thanks in no small part to the defection of many social conservatives and ideological hard liners to the Wildrose Alliance under former journalist and Fraser Institute ideologue Danielle Smith.
What’s more, the party’s more moderate faction enjoys the patronage of Mr. Stelmach and his inner circle – who pretty clearly view Dr. Morton as a traitor, a two-legged rat, for resisting the premier’s budget plans last February. At 61, Dr. Morton is also the oldest competitor in the current field, a fact that is not viewed as an advantage by anyone.
For all these reasons, it is easy to write off Dr. Morton’s chances. This, however, would be a big mistake.
For the California-born, Wyoming-raised scion of a conservative American political family, who came to Alberta to teach “political economy” at the neo-liberal “Calgary School” of the University of Calgary and ended up as the minister of finance in Mr. Stelmach’s government, is a political survivor and shrewd campaigner with a strong base among the party’s most committed hard-right supporters.
Too much can – and has – been made of the fact that many ultra-conservative Conservatives decamped for the Wildrose ranks during the Stelmach years. This is true enough, but as has been said here before, these market-fundamentalist Conservatives will be unable to control the urge to slip back into the big Tory tent and play a role in the choice of the province’s next premier – at least as long as Dr. Morton is in the running.
Naturally, the far-right Alliance would prefer they didn’t, as its leadership recognizes that there are risks if its supporters return to their once happy home. After all, they may find it a more congenial place again with Premier Stelmach on his way out.
If they must go back, it’s a certainty that the Alliance leadership will try to persuade them to vote strategically for the weakest leadership candidate from the Wildrose perspective. That means the most liberal, most Edmonton-focused, candidate. But it’s said here that in that private moment when they vote, these fair-weather Wildrosers will not be able to resist the temptation to vote for the man who thinks just like they do.
Of course Dr. Morton will make it his business to woo these sometime Wildrose supporters back, and to make them feel at home when they come, because on them rests his hope of recreating the Conservative Party he never left in the far-right image of the Wildrose Alliance whose instincts he represents.
This would be a long shot if Dr. Morton were not a skilled campaigner who knows – and for obvious reasons this is important – who his supporters were last time. He knows because he literally has their numbers.
Yes, Dr. Morton may have entered the race with fewer party members intending to support him than, say, Ralph-Klein-era senior cabinet minister Gary Mar, who still appears to enjoy the support of the current party establishment even if his well-financed campaign is surprisingly flaccid.
What’s more, those supporters on Dr. Morton’s contact list aren’t the kind of Tories likely to be seduced away by any other candidate in the race.
Now, there are those who argue that even if all of Dr. Morton’s past supporters return to the fold, that will not be enough to push him over the top in the leadership contest. Maybe so. Maybe not.
But as a smart politician, Dr. Morton clearly recognizes this and has made an effort to moderate his image with the public, if only just enough to bring in a few pinkish Tories willing to compromise moderation for the idea of strong leadership.
As a result, a Calgary Herald columnist was soon found and persuaded to conveniently opine that Dr. Morton had miraculously become “a mellower politician who finds himself in the middle of his party.”
“I think the success of the PC party for 40 years has been as a big-tent party,” Dr. Morton was quoted as musing. “Now it’s fracturing left and right. Ironically, I find myself somewhat in the middle now. I’m criticized by some red Tories as being too conservative, and criticized by Wildrose as being too liberal. That’s not a bad place to be in. It’s very different from the 2006 (leadership campaign) where I was pretty thoroughly the challenger on the right.”
That’s what you call a good one, but it just might be good enough to bring in sufficient numbers of Conservative moderates to push Dr. Morton over the top, and after that to bring large numbers of Alberta voters who have been eyeing Danielle Smith and the Alliance back to the Tory Mother Ship.
So don’t rule out Dr. Morton as a potential winner of the Conservative race, even if he isn’t the front runner today.
This post also appears on rabble.ca.