Lee Richardson MP Calgary-Centre

Recently resigned MP Lee Richardson, soon to be Principal Secretary to Premier Alison Redford. (Photo from 5of7 on Flickr)

After a bitterly fought provincial election campaign drove a deep rift into Alberta’s conservative movement between the moderate institutional Progressive Conservatives and the ideologically-driven Wildrose Party, a federal by-election in Calgary may be the first real test of how united supporters of the federal Conservative Party supporters are in Alberta.

Alison Redford Alberta Election 2012 Conservative leader

Alison Redford

Calgary-Centre Member of Parliament Lee Richardson announced today that he is leaving Ottawa to become Principal Secretary to PC Premier Alison Redford in Edmonton. Mr. Richardson’s decision will boost Premier Redford’s credentials among federal Conservative supporters, many of whom were openly supportive of Wildrose Party leader Danielle Smith in the recent election.

As a senior political advisor, Mr. Richardson is an old pro. From 1979 to 1983, Mr. Richardson was Chief of Staff to Alberta Premier Peter Lougheed and later served as Deputy Chief of Staff to Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. In last year’s PC leadership contest, Mr. Richardson supported candidate Rick Orman, who he worked with at the Legislative Assembly before he was first elected as a PC MP in Calgary-Southeast in 1988. He served until his defeat by Reform Party candidate Jan Brown in 1993. He re-entered federal politics as the Conservative MP for Calgary-Centre in 2004.

Triggering a by-election that will occur in the next six months, the contest for the Conservative Party nomination in this constituency could expose some uncomfortable cleavages between moderate and ideologically conservatives in Alberta.

Ezra Levant

Ezra Levant

A Twitter account supporting the possible candidacy of right-wing talk show host Ezra Levant was created within a hour of Mr. Richardson’s announcement. Many Albertans may remember Mr. Levant as the Wildrose Party’s biggest cheerleader on his cable news program during the recent provincial election. In 2002, he stepped down as the Canadian Alliance candidate in Calgary-Southwest to allow Stephen Harper to win a seat in the House of Commons.

Also rumoured as a potential candidates are Calgary Alderman John Mar, who has close connections to PC Party organizers, and recent Calgary-Klein Wildrose Party candidate Jeremy Nixon. Mr. Nixon placed second with more than 34% of the vote in the recent election. Although unlikely in my mind, one Conservative supporter emailed me this evening to name former Calgary-Glenmore Wildrose MLA Paul Hinman as a potential candidate.

Of course, the Conservatives could avoid a nasty nomination battle and simply acclaim a candidate, as they did to party organizer Michelle Rempel after cabinet minister Jim Prentice resigned as MP for Calgary-Centre North in 2010.

The Liberals earned respectable second-place votes in this constituency under its former boundaries in the 1990s, but have fallen further behind the Conservatives in recent elections.

In the 2011 federal election, Liberal candidate Jennifer Pollock placed second with 17% of the vote, a full 40% behind Mr. Richardson. Edmontonian parachute candidate Donna Montgomery earned 14% for the NDP.

While some sort of centre-left coalition could place a respectable second in the imminent Calgary-Centre by-election, it seems unlikely that anyone other a Conservative would win this vote.

UPDATE: Mr. Levant has declared he will not seek the nomination. Alderman Mar is considering running for the nomination.