The two candidates vying to be leader of the Manitoba Tory party, and the next premier, are laser-focused on winning over party members — not the public — with 10 days to go.
"I think that these leaders are more concerned about speaking to members than to the general public," political expert Christopher Adams said Wednesday.
"If you think about what their task is right now, to win the leadership, either one of them has to convince members to support them," said Adams, a political studies professor at the University of Manitoba.
Neither Shelly Glover nor Heather Stefanson would answer questions from the Free Press Wednesday, after anti-vaccine passport crusaders posted support for Glover on social media, and Stefanson took out ads to show a diversity of Manitobans in her corner.
Glover, a former police officer and federal cabinet minister in Stephen Harper's Conservative government, was "on tour" and not available to comment, her campaign said.
Stefanson's campaign prepared a statement rather than make her available.
"I feel that we’ve been running a positive campaign listening to Manitobans. We’ve focused on broadening our tent and becoming a more inclusive party that reflects the province that we call home," Stefanson's campaign said.
The campaigns are urging supporters to mail their ballots by the end of the day Friday to make sure they're received by the deadline — Oct. 29 at 5 p.m. The new leader will be announced on Oct. 30.
It's tough to know who is ahead because the PC party has a "one-member, one-vote" system, instead of having constituency associations select delegates to vote for a leader, Adams said.
He and veteran political analyst Paul Thomas both think Stefanson has an edge.
"As the establishment candidate within the provincial party, Stefanson is targeting more of her sales effort on disgruntled members of the PC party who are frustrated and angry with the direction and leadership style of (former premier Brian) Pallister," said Thomas, a political studies professor emeritus at the U of M.
"As more of an outsider, with her experience coming in the federal wing of the party, Glover is also running an anti-Pallister sales campaign but she is targeting her appeal more broadly to enlist new members fed up with COVID restrictions," he said.
Because Glover appears to lack a strong base of support from PC opinion leaders - cabinet and caucus members, constituency executives, leading business people and identifiable community figures - she has to cast a wide net to reel in as many members, new and old, Thomas said.
"She cannot afford to alienate an intense minority of potential followers who are anti-vaccination," he said of Glover. She will have to count on the emotional strength of her followers’ opinions on single-issue causes to drive them to mail-in ballots by the deadline, Thomas said.
"Stefanson set out to establish an image as a moderate, pragmatic leader who can command broad support within the political community, even across party lines."
Thomas said that's been a winning formula in Manitoba politics, including for premiers such as Conservative Duff Roblin and New Democrat Gary Doer.
"Her challenge is to convince members... and ultimately voters, that she was publicly loyal to the Pallister agenda but was critical in the privacy of cabinet and caucus," he said.
Stefanson's ability to entice endorsements from prominent people has given the Tuxedo MLA an edge, figures Adams.
Glover, too, has high-profile endorsements, including Conservative Sen. Don Plett, Peguis First Nation Chief Glenn Hudson, Sikh community leader Amarjeet Warraich as well as some notorious opponents to vaccine passports.
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Patrick Allard has been arrested for violating public health orders and failing to comply with conditions of his release for inciting protesters to block roads to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers home opener in August because proof of vaccination was required.
Allard spoke at a People's Party of Canada rally at The Forks, with its leader Maxime Bernier, last month and has since told his Facebook followers to vote for Glover. He's also offered to pick up PC party ballots supporting her and deliver them to the party headquarters. Another Glover supporter, Karl Krebs, tried and failed to convince Winkler city council to declare it a sanctuary city in which provincial mask and vaccine passport requirements would not be upheld.
"Refusing to challenge lawbreakers with extreme views could come back to haunt Glover in the unlikely event that she should win the leadership," said Thomas.
"She will face withering attacks from the opposition parties, by public health experts and in the media for ignoring science and evidence," he said.
"She will argue that she wants to build a 'big tent' political party that does not rely on top-down unilateral control from the premier’s office. However, critics will argue that on life-and-death matters, leaders must show political courage and take a principled stand," said Thomas.
Carol Sanders Legislature reporter
After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.
The leader of the Official Opposition says PC leadership candidates Shelly Glover and Heather Stefanson will both remind Manitobans of Brian Pallister who quit midway into into his second term as premier after his popularity plummeted.
"On the one hand, you've got problematic messaging about public health orders and confusing information about the vaccines that frustrated people with Brian Pallister," Wab Kinew said Wednesday. "And then, on the other hand, you've got somebody who represents the health cuts and the chaos of the second and third waves during the pandemic that also really turned people off from last premier," he said.
"The irony is that Shelly Glover is being backed by conspiracy theorists but, if Heather Stefanson wins, we're all going to be expected to swallow the conspiracy theory that Brian Pallister acted alone," said Liberal leader Dougald Lamont.
"It takes a village - an entire PC caucus - to dismantle the healthcare system," the MLA for St. Boniface said. "They're going to say 'things are different 'cause we have a new figurehead'. These are all the same people who put Pallister in place, and were completely silent until until it became politically convenient for them to speak up," Lamont said.
All parties are going to have to figure out how to deal with extreme views, Paul Thomas, University of Manitoba political studies professor emeritus said.
"In a period of political polarization, leaders on both the right and the left face the political management problem of dealing with extreme elements within their ranks," Thomas said. "In the Manitoba context, it is a bigger, more difficult problem for the PC leader."
Updated on Wednesday, October 20, 2021 at 10:09 PM CDT: Fixes typo.