BRANDON -- The Harper Conservatives insist they aren't the cynical, anti-democratic schemers many Canadians believe them to be, but then this happens.
What was shaping up to be an interesting three-way contest for the Conservative candidacy in the upcoming Brandon-Souris byelection is over before it began in earnest. The perceived front-runner for the nomination, Chris Kennedy, and Brandon's deputy mayor, Len Isleifson, have each been disqualified.
That leaves Arthur-Virden MLA Larry Maguire, the perceived favourite of party establishment, as the last man standing. He has won the nomination by acclamation.
That doesn't sit well with Kennedy, who served as assistant to former MP Merv Tweed for more than four years.
"All applications had to be received at national headquarters in their original form by 6 p.m. eastern on Sept. 11," a source in the Conservative party said. "Mr. Kennedy's application did not meet that deadline as his application arrived on Sept. 12. Mr. Kennedy was also missing the required $1,000 deposit. The deadlines for the nomination applications were not condensed and were known to all members three weeks in advance. The rules clearly state that the applications must be in by the deadline."
Kennedy rejects that explanation, claiming he personally sent the application by courier and has a tracking number to verify time of delivery. He insists the cheque was stapled to the application.
The reasons for Isleifson's ejection from the race are even more murky. Last Friday, he issued a press release indicating he had withdrawn to concentrate on his duties as newly appointed deputy mayor. A few hours later, however, a member of the local Tory nomination committee told the media Isleifson had actually been disqualified two days earlier.
The apparent reason for Isleifson's rejection is that, contrary to party rules, he had not held a federal party membership for the minimum period prior to the nomination deadline.
The rules are designed to prevent "instant Tories" from hijacking nominations, but Isleifson's Conservative credentials are rock-solid. He is the area director for the provincial Tory party and president of the Brandon East provincial riding association.
What's going on here? Why would party officials apply the rules so rigidly when those same rules have been relaxed in the past for byelections in other ridings?
Why would they embarrass Isleifson, who had little chance of winning the nomination, but hoped to use the process as a springboard for a potential mayoral campaign next year or a Tory candidacy for the legislature in two years?
Many followers of national politics respond this is business as usual for the Harper Tories. Others say this is arrogance festering in a "blue dog" riding that has been represented by a conservative MP for all but four of the past 62 years.
Still others say the party got the candidate they wanted. Instead of the 29 year-old Kennedy, they get the 64-year-old Maguire, who looks just like most of the other guys who line the Tory backbench in Ottawa.
Whatever the answer, a large number of Brandon-Souris Conservatives are angered by the way Isleifson and Kennedy have been treated by the party, and the party's denial of their right to choose their candidate.
Many have decided to sit on the sidelines during the by-election campaign, refusing to work for a party that treats its own this way.
The situation, and the opportunity it represents, has not escaped the attention of Rolf Dinsdale, the son of former Brandon-Souris Progressive Conservative MP Walter Dinsdale who is seeking the Liberal nomination.
"If supporters of Kennedy and Isleifson are disappointed they didn't have a chance to vote for their candidate at a nomination meeting, at least they can look forward to having a choice of candidates to vote for in the byelection," Dinsdale said. "There will be more than one candidate that will appeal to people who used to vote for the PC party and dislike the way the 'reformatories' operate."
The worst wounds are often self-inflicted. By managing the Brandon-Souris process in such an inept manner, Conservative leadership has reinforced widely held perceptions of the party, offended the local party base and given its opponents fresh ammunition.
This will cost the Tories votes in Brandon-Souris.
Deveryn Ross is a political commentator living in Brandon