This is where the Albertans who decide Jason Kenney’s future live (think small)

Premier Jason Kenney addressed his party on April 9 at the official launch of his leadership review process. (Radio Canada)

The fate of Premier Jason Kenney rests in the hands of less than 1.5% of Albertans – those who are able-bodied members of the United Conservative Party. But even within this small, politically active subset of the population, there is an outsized say in some corners of the province.

The focus is on the corners, edges and less dense middle.

To retain his post as leader of a province dominated by its cities of two million people, Kenney must absorb a good share of the leadership review votes in places like Cardston in Alberta’s deep south, Rimbey in the center and very high in Fort McMurray. A resident of the Cardston-Siksika electoral district is three times more likely than a Calgarian to be a member of the UCP, and nearly seven times more likely than an Edmontonian, according to internal party data reviewed by CBC News. .

The party’s power base

According to a party list of 59,409 members as of March 31 – days before the leadership ballots were sent out – this southern riding has 2,303 UCP members, the most of Alberta’s 87 ridings. The top 12 constituencies for UCP memberships are all outside major cities.

All in all, the United Conservatives are primarily a party of members from small towns and rural areas; 60% live outside of Calgary and Edmonton. And it’s in those pockets that right-wing frustration has mostly erupted against Kenney, over his handling of the pandemic that’s too restrictive for libertarian-minded conservatives, as well as what critics see as failures to isolate. Alberta from the influence of Ottawa and to provide appropriate care. and feed the UCP base.

“At the end of the day, voters are in the wrong place for Jason Kenney to expect very good numbers (in the leadership review),” said Vitor Marciano, an aide to MP Brian Jean, one of Kenney’s top internal critics.

Shifting the vote in less disgruntled urban and suburban constituencies won’t be enough, says the veteran Conservative campaigner.

“A very high Kenney number in Calgary-Lougheed could be negated by an anti-Kenney OK number in Fort McMurray-Wood Buffalo.”

Marciano lists these constituencies with a purpose. Calgary–Lougheed is Kenney’s own constituency, with a paltry 472 UCP members; the other is Jean’s, with 1,648. The tally in the former leader of Wildrose’s political district ranks third behind Cardston–Siksika and Rimbey–Rocky Mountain House–Sundre, represented respectively by the deputy leader of Kenney, Joseph Schow, and Environment Minister Jason Nixon.

These three ridings have seen an increase in membership due to hotly contested nomination contests. In fact, make the nominating contests cut short in two of them, as Kenney loyalist Jean-friendly challengers in Cardston and Rimbey were separately disqualified due to controversial past remarks or associations, leaving Schow and Nixon win by acclamation.

Jodie Gateman, who had hoped to overtake Schow, says she had enlisted hundreds of new members for her nomination earlier this spring. Then, after his disqualification, hundreds more joined to register for Kenney’s exam.

In the riding of Rimbey, ousted candidate Tim Hoven says his supporters are also eager to vote against Kenney.

Along with Jean’s constituency, these three alleged hotbeds of anti-Kenney sentiment make up more than 10 percent of the party’s total membership.

The UCP does not publicly publish the breakdown constituency by constituency of its members. However, the party shared this data with Jean’s team during its official protest against the leadership review’s mail-in voting format.

CBC News asked Jean’s camp for this data, to understand what numbers are behind Marciano’s recent public claims that rural-dense membership numbers would make Kenney’s success a difficult climb. The party did not dispute the information from the CBC. (The list was updated slightly after March 31, so it doesn’t quite match the number and distribution of ballots sent to UCP members in April.)

Of course, it is too simplistic to say that Jason Kenney is likely to be supported by urban UCPs and opposed by rural ones; there is undoubtedly a share of disgruntled members in the big cities and pro-Kenney loyalists in the countryside.

The United Conservatives vote during the plenary sessions of the party’s 2019 annual meeting. A mail-in vote this spring asked members if they approved of Jason Kenney remaining as leader. (Dave Chidley/The Canadian Press/CBC News illustration)

Moreover, one of the laziest shortcuts in Alberta politics is to label everything outside of Calgary and Edmonton as “rural” – residents of cities like Lethbridge, Grande Prairie and communities – dormitories that surround the capital tend to share more political traits with larger urban centers. than with the people of Starland County.

The premier’s team is banking on the strong support of the St. Alberts and Red Deers, as well as those in the city who fear the party will abandon their Calgary-based premier in favor of someone stronger among the less buttoned up. Wildrose wing of this grumpy coalition.

“These are places where our internal numbers show strong support for the prime minister,” said Brock Harrison, the prime minister’s director of communications, on leave from the government to work on his boss’s bid to retain leadership – a campaign with many trappings of a traditionally led campaign. , such as paid staff and a makeshift call center for voter identification.

Harrison acknowledges that some of the anti-Kenney MPs in the UCP caucus and other organizers helped recruit large numbers of members. But Kenney’s aide also says the team is more confident that the turbulent mood within the party last fall and early this year has cooled. He points to Kenney’s handling of the Omicron wave of COVID without new restrictions — in effect, dropping Alberta’s mask and vaccination rules ahead of most provinces — and improving Alberta’s economy and of the provincial balance sheet.

The Prime Minister’s team have recently been sufficiently confident that he will survive leadership scrutiny that they let him go to a policy conference in Ottawa and a debate over the leadership of the federal Conservatives last week. -end before the voting deadline, and Kenney and his lieutenants have publicly considered the consequences for MPs who publicly call for his head.

Even Marciano refers to the difficulties Kenney will have to face to score a “good number” rather than just a win – a signal that if the Prime Minister can technically win a majority in this yes or no vote, then the question becomes whether his margin is strong enough for him to legitimately remain at the helm.

(The Ralph Klein line may prove instructive; in 2006, the then prime minister announced he would step down shortly after receiving the support of just 55% of Progressive Conservatives.)

The weak points of the UCP

This rare glimpse into the geographic distribution of UCP members may reveal more to Albertans than a few clues as to how Kenney will fare. It also speaks to the local empire building and restlessness of some UCP MPs – like Innisfail-Sylvan Lake’s Devin Dreeshen, who quit the cabinet amid reports of his bad behavior, but who could be in Kenney’s best books to have a constituency of 1,542 members; or veteran cabinet minister Ric McIver, whose Calgary–Hays has just 333 members, the second-fewest of all UCP-held ridings.

It also reveals in even greater detail the moribund state of the United Conservatives in Edmonton, where 19 of the 20 seats are orange NDP.

According to an old Conservative membership list from the early to mid-2000s obtained by this writer, Klein’s former coalition had more members in Edmonton than in Calgary, a sign of the capital’s politically pluralistic and engaged character. not so long ago. Now, only about 6,900 Edmontonians hold UCP cards, compared to nearly 17,000 Calgarians and 36,000 from the rest of the province.

When the ballots are all counted and the results are announced on May 18, don’t expect the party to release a riding-by-riding breakdown of how the United Conservatives voted. It might be wiser to listen across the province where the cheers and groans emanate.