Who could replace Jason Kenney as UCP leader? Some possible contenders
Premier Jason Kenney announced Wednesday he is stepping down as UCP leader after failing to win a strong majority in his party’s leadership review.
Kenney secured the support of just 51.4 per cent of members, and despite previously saying 50 per cent plus one would be enough to claim victory, he announced his resignation soon after.
With just one year until the next election, the party now has to undertake a leadership race in an attempt to get the party back on solid footing and secure a second term.
But who could be likely contestants and possible successors? Mount Royal University political scientist Lori Williams suggested potential successors within cabinet could include Finance Minister Travis Toews, plus Jobs, Economy and Innovation Minister Doug Schweitzer, but added some expect outsiders like former federal conservative MP Rona Ambrose could step in.
Brian Jean was bested the last time he and Jason Kenney went head-to-head, in the 2017 UCP leadership race. Jean had returned to Alberta after a stint as a Conservative MP, and took over a Wildrose Party smarting from the attempted merger of the PCs and Wildrose under then-premier Jim Prentice. The mass defection, led by Danielle Smith (see below), caused a rift in the right-wing party, but not all of the MLAs crossed the floor.
Jean took on the leadership and led the Wildrose to official Opposition status. When the PCs and Wildrose merged into the UCP, Jean attempted to lead the new party, but was unsuccessful. He stepped back from provincial politics until early 2022, when he ran for an open seat in Fort McMurray, running on a platform of seeking to remove Kenney as leader.
In a statement Wednesday, Jean confirmed he will run for leader. He said his campaign “will demonstrate how we can do things differently, together, to recapture the enthusiastic support of the over one million Albertans who elected us in 2019.”
Smith would come to the race with a lot of name recognition, both positive and negative. The longtime broadcaster previously served as leader of the Wildrose Party (now rolled into the UCP umbrella) and official Opposition from 2012-2014.
Controversially, she orchestrated a mass floor-crossing with Prentice in an attempt to unite the right. However, not all of the Wildrose MLAs followed, and Smith ultimately lost her bid for a PC nomination. Smith returned to broadcasting, on Corus radio, before leaving her show in 2021.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, she has been outspoken against restrictions and courted controversy for suggesting hydroxychloroquine could cure the virus.
While she has suggested she is interested in pursuing the leadership, Smith said in a Wednesday evening press release that she would be holding a Thursday news conference.
Former Wildrose MLA Drew Barnes has been one of Kenney’s most outspoken critics, both in caucus, and from the outside, as one of the most public faces in the anti-Kenney movement this year.
He and fellow MLA Todd Lowen were removed from caucus in a vote after the pair were outspoken over the government’s handling of COVID-19. He has also been vocal about Alberta independence needing to be part of the discussion in the province’s dealings with Ottawa.
The northern Alberta MLA has been the premier’s steady hand on the province’s finances since winning government in 2019. He has been the face of the attempts to balance the books, and has generally shied away from some of the combativeness of his cabinet colleagues.
Calgary-area MLA Leela Aheer has been another source of public criticism for Kenney
She took the premier to task for appearing to violate health measures during a lunch on the balcony at the so-called Sky Palace and also called him out for comments he made in defence of Canada’s first prime minister.
She was demoted from cabinet soon after, though Kenney claimed it had nothing to with her criticism.
Seen as Kenney’s right hand, Nixon was first elected as a Wildrose MLA in 2015 and was on the negotiating committee to merge the two parties into the UCP.
He has been minister of parks and the environment since the UCP was elected and is also the UCP house leader, though he has also been at the centre of a number of controversies.
Currently the minister of jobs, economy and innovation, Schweitzer finished a distant third to Kenney and Jean in the 2017 UCP leadership contest.
After the 2019 election, Schweitzer was appointed minister of justice and solicitor general, a position he held for about 16 months until being moved to his current portfolio.
Former federal cabinet minister and one-time interim leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, Ambrose has said many times she is happy in the private sector. She has repeatedly rebuffed suggestions she should re-enter politics to run for the leadership of the national party, so entering provincial politics may be a bit of a longshot.
But Ambrose is seen by many as someone who is popular with broad appeal, and who would be a worthy opponent against NDP Leader Rachel Notley.
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