It’s become a swirl of coalition building as Jason Kenney and his allies contest Alberta’s next premier

Few people attend political meet-and-greets these days without an opinion on what should happen with the leadership of the United Conservative Party.

Saturday’s meeting of the party’s top council got off to a raucous start, with foes of Jason Kenney’s continued run for premier pressing their argument.

Support for Kenney was often from faces of party members who are not contemplating a run against him: After a round of standing ovations, Ron Godin, elected MLA for Calgary-Glenmore, said Kenney is leading the party “like a top prize fighter. No ifs, ands or buts about it.”

Joe Laska, the longest-serving member of the caucus, and leader of Wildrose-for-life, dismissed the divide within the party as “cultural.”

“Where’s the difference between us and the Liberals? Like, we just feel like we are representing what we think is right in our hearts. We don’t want to hear what you think is wrong,” Laska said.

Supporters of Kenney have campaigned on his success in uniting his divided party, and seeking to wrest the Tory leadership from Premier Rachel Notley in the 2019 election. Kenney has been in a position to lead a conservative party in a time of drought for Alberta, after a decade of fiscal pain — a pinch in the economy could influence the view of the leadership.

Kenney’s rivals spoke against his leadership in a group-tweet Saturday night, by way of mocking the candidate’s multimillion-dollar fundraiser the previous evening in a downtown downtown Calgary venue. Despite a teleprompter and scant interaction from Kenney, the event “went great,” he told reporters. The crowd size was close to 1,000, while by the evening before the vote was put off until Nov. 17.

Within two hours of the network crew in the crowd, supporters of Jeff Callaway announced they’d begin another canvass to try to force a second ballot. Callaway, who is running against Kenney as well as Stephen Khan and Doug Schweitzer for the leadership, told volunteers that the two candidates were separated by only “maybe 10 votes” in the first round, according to a volunteer.

Both sides worked the room, posing for photos and shaking hands with party members.

Asked later who he supported, Chris Lacossy, a longtime party activist who had run and lost for a seat in the legislature, said: “Personally, I like Kenney. He has a good plan for the party, but I am against that leadership. I think that’s the wrong direction.”

Laska urged party members to unite against any candidate who split the vote for the leadership, by voting for at least two candidates to qualify for the runoff.

“The first preference is to support a winner, whoever that is. If we, as members of the United Conservative Party, are split across the party, we lose that,” Laska said.

Among a bunch of local, provincial and national executives, almost everyone backed Kenney. A few would vote for anyone but Kenney, and some — including Laska and Callaway — backed a first-round winner.

John Sigurdson, a longtime party activist, gave nothing but support to Kenney: “All my friends hate him, but I like him.”

Others cast ballots of protest, regardless of how they felt about him.

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