Still waters run deep but don’t be fooled by the apparent calm of the Tory leadership race. That’s surface tension and just beneath torrents are beginning to rage.
All war is hell, but civil war is particularly vicious, and Nova Scotia’s Progressive Conservatives are dividing into five very uneven armed camps to do battle all summer and into the fall.
The prize is a clean shot at the premier’s office. The winner leads a party that, just a year ago, came a few thousand flipped votes away from the government side of the legislature.
The Liberals surged back into a comfortable lead in a recent poll, but at this stage in Stephen MacNeil’s second term that’s no indication of how people will feel when they next vote. Tories are looking for a leader to take them back to the promised land, first chance.
A couple of those contenders are chewing their tongues raw trying to remain civil. Every candidate needs to be careful not to completely alienate rivals’ supporters. A first ballot win is improbable, so the eventual winner will need help from some of those voters on subsequent ballots.
That didn’t stop presumed front-runner Tim Houston from getting up in Cecil Clarke’s face last weekend. Houston’s campaign staged a rally in North Sydney, Clarke’s hometown, rather than take the event to Sydney or any of the other hard-scrabble towns that make up old industrial Cape Breton.
Houston, the MLA from Pictou East and Clarke, Cape Breton Regional Municipality’s mayor, are running one-two on virtually all scorecards at this early stage in the race.
Elizabeth Smith-McCrossin, who represents Cumberland North and John Lohr, from Kings North are vying for third. Smith-McCrossin has more potential to grow in the later ballots than either of the front-runners, while Lohr is building from a solid Valley base with a clear conservative message that separates him from the pack.
Julie Chaisson, who ran for the Tories in Chester St. Margaret’s last year is outperforming expectations and drawing attention but is the real long shot in the field.
Clarke didn’t let Houston’s invasion of his turf go unanswered. He fired off a broadside this week critical of Houston’s “bad policy” on municipal financing. Clarke’s critique didn’t mention Houston by name and the omission appeared to be a dismissive slight given it was obvious who Clarke was berating.
Like many leadership contests these days, this one breaks into two distinct campaigns. Until the September 11 deadline, each camp is trying to sign-up new party members to back their candidate, while attracting existing rank-and-file Tories.
Between September 12 and October 27, it’s still a fight for every vote, but the electorate is established so campaigns can focus more, shore up their first ballot and try to attract later ballot support from the ranks of opponents. Tories will either mail in a preferential ballot ranking their choices or attend the leadership convention at the Halifax Exhibition Park, October 26-27, where they’ll be able to vote on each ballot.
Even this early, the divide at the top appears unbreachable. Animosity has congealed. Clarke’s supporters aren’t looking at Houston as their second choice, and Houston’s camp doesn’t appear to be looking past the first ballot at all.
Unless those dynamics change, the door is open to Smith-McCrossin who seems the most popular second choice, or John Lohr, who is running as the true conservative in the race. Whether that right-of-centre strategic positioning will attract enough support to propel Lohr to the top remains to be seen, but at least he is differentiating himself from his more outwardly progressive opponents.
The leading contenders are both polarizing candidates. Unaligned party stalwarts say there is a stop-Houston sentiment building and a less vehement anti-Clarke faction. Houston needs to be very near victory on the first ballot to win, and although Clark seems to have more potential to grow, he needs at least a third of the first ballot votes if he’s going to make it across the finish line first.
There are grumblings about strong-arm tactics that party members are feeling from Houston’s backers in Tory-held ridings where MLAs are supporting Houston.
Clarke, who served in the cabinets of John Hamm and Rodney MacDonald a decade back, is being tagged with the “establishment” label that’s never welcome, particularly in a party that has lost three straight elections.
With 19 weeks to run in this marathon, the next leader of Nova Scotia’s PCs will be the last woman or man standing and job one will be putting the party back together.
Jim Vibert, a journalist and writer for longer than he cares to admit, consulted or worked for five Nova Scotia governments. He now keeps a close and critical eye on provincial and regional powers.