Chink in Conservative armour

Could a long-term Conservative riding next door to Stephen Harper’s seat in the federal party’s heartland of Calgary go any other

Could a long-term Conservative riding next door to Stephen Harper’s seat in the federal party’s heartland of Calgary go any other direction than back to the right in an upcoming byelection?

The apparent absurdity of the question is what makes the prospect all the more tantalizing for opposition parties, which are spoiling for an upset in a province that has behaved strangely moderate in recent civic and provincial elections.

When long-time moderate Conservative Lee Richardson announced on May 30 he would be stepping down in Calgary Centre to become principal secretary for Premier Alison Redford, he was just the latest Tory to tend a riding that — through evolving boundaries — has been in the hands of one conservative brand or other (including PCs, Reform and Alliance) since it came into existence in the mid-1960s.

Seeing a near-sure bet, well-known Calgary conservatives have stepped forward to take a shot at the nomination to carry the Conservative banner. Declared candidates include political commentator Joan Crockatt, city alderman John Mar, and former provincial MLA Jon Lord. The rumour mill suggests other high-profile conservatives are also testing the waters.

Shaky credentials

But how conservative is this seat? It’s worth noting that Richardson inherited the riding from Joe Clark in 2004, a Tory so red he is reviled in “real” conservative circles even today. Curiously, Clark’s riding was one of the few that did not tilt to the farther right Alliance Party in the 2000 election.

The moderate leanings are reflection of the riding’s demographics. This downtown core riding is home to a larger than average percentage of young adults, whose household income and education level is also above average. With a number of apartment blocks and high rises, it also has a lower rate of home ownership than average, a mobile population and a taste for the downtown arts scene.

As Liberal Leader Bob Rae was quoted during his visit to the Stampede this month, this is the demographic that tends to vote centrist or left of centre. “There are a lot of former Ontarians and Quebecers and Maritimers who are living and working in Alberta. As the province’s demography changes with immigration, the cities and the culture of those cities begins to take on a life of its own and looks a lot more like cities in the rest of the country,” Rae told a local reporter.

Certainly, the riding’s commitment to conservatism has not been as powerful as some other seats in the southern Alberta stronghold. Richardson’s 2011 re-election was decisive, but the 57 per cent support pales in comparison to the 70-plus per cent results in suburban Calgary seats.

Recent electoral history also challenge the assumption that this riding is a sure bet for the Conservatives. In Calgary’s 2011 civic election, Naheed Nenshi — a Muslim and “progressive” — came from behind to defeat two conservative stars: Ald. Ric McIver and Barb Higgins, a television newscaster, who gave up her job to run for mayor. Meanwhile, on the provincial scene, the hard-right conservative Wildrose Alliance suffered a stunning electoral upset when moderate Albertans mounted a last-minute rally to elect the PCs’ Redford, another conservative (fairly or unfairly) branded a red Tory.

Leaders hang around

Perhaps sensing an opportunity — however slim — Rae, NDP leader Thomas Mulcair and other opposition politicians hung around Cowtown for an uncharacteristically long time during the just-concluded Calgary Stampede, flipping flapjacks and kissing babies.

More intriguing still was the appearance by Nathan Cullren, a British Columbia MP and former NDP leadership candidate, who stopped in recently at Calgary Centre to host an interactive workshop for “uniting progressives” to put up one strong candidate against the Conservatives.

Optimism is a wonderful thing, but Cullen and his ilk face a daunting challenge. Of the two declared Liberal candidates, teacher and community organizer Rahim Sajan is said to support co-operation between the Greens and NDP, but consultant and conservationist Harvey Locke is seen as a roadblock.

There’s one other bit of reality any left-of-centre coalition would need to ponder carefully. Even in a stark right vs. left contest, the progressives remain the underdogs. In the 2008 election, Richardson managed to draw 25,302 votes. The total of the Liberal, Green and NDP votes combined was 20,100.

To overcome the shortfall, opposition parties would need to see a left-of-centre voter rally of Nenshi proportions. That will require a weak Conservative candidate (Crockatt and Mar are both considered vulnerable), tactical brilliance, unity, massive volunteers and a large measure of luck.

Weirder things have happened in politics. But not much weirder.

Doug Firby is editor in chief of Troy Media.