Is Pierre Poilievre Alberta’s guy?

Picture Pierre Poilievre in a cowboy hat.

You don’t have to imagine it. It’s the kind of time-tested image that politicians covet every year as the Calgary Stampede begins, serving up opportunities to glad-hand, flip pancakes for the cameras and show Albertans you can hang.

Stampede draws thousands of partygoers, horseback riders and dozens of vote-thirsty politicians every year to an event where jeans, boots and hat are typically a must. Poilievre tweeted a picture of himself Friday in attendance, saying “Stampede begins.”

Poilievre is the MP for Carleton, just outside Ottawa, but he was born in Calgary. He grew up in the province and went to the University of Calgary, where he studied international relations and commerce. He cleaned tables at the Stampede in his teens.

“He’s more authentically Albertan than (Stephen) Harper or (Jason) Kenney,” said Lisa Young, a University of Calgary political scientist.

Pierre Poilievre attends the Calgary Stampede Parade on Friday.

That’s important for the Conservative party leadership hopeful who many observers believe is by far the front-runner in the race set to wrap on Sept. 10.

Alberta is a conservative power base in Canada. Thirty of its 34 federal ridings are currently Conservative, and its ideological sway holds significant influence in the broader conservative movement. It’s also home to some of the fiercest organizers, power brokers, kingmakers and flush party donors.

If Poilievre wants any chance at holding the Conservative party together over the next three years, he needs the province on board, both in terms of voters buying his leadership, as well as the party establishment.

So far, it’s looking good for him on the Prairies, according to political observers. With his brash style that’s thick on anti-establishment rhetoric, lofty promises that are served with vague platitudes such as “take back control of your life” and a heaping of “freedom” talk, people appear to be lining up for him in Alberta.

It remains to be seen whether he can (or wants to) pivot his message once a federal election rolls around. It’s one thing to make political pitches to Conservative party members, but quite another to make them to Canadians broadly, especially in Eastern Canada, where the Conservatives have been struggling to win support.

Young laughs when asked what makes him attractive to Albertans.

“He’s not from Quebec,” she said.

“Although he represents an Eastern Ontario riding, he isn’t culturally part of any sort of Ontario or Quebec establishment.”

Former Quebec premier Jean Charest and recently disqualified Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown have offered more moderate directions for the party, but they don’t generate a lot of hype in Alberta. Leslyn Lewis, the socially conservative candidate and MP for Haldimand-Norfolk in southern Ontario, may pick up some support in rural ridings on the Prairies, Young said.

All in all, Poilievre appears to have much of the West sewn up. On Friday, he’s reportedly planned to skip a leadership debate in Calgary and attend a party instead.

After becoming an MP in 2004 at age 25, he honed his political chops as an attack dog in Parliament under Harper, said Young.

“His political origins are very much the Harper party,” she said.

Young said this, in part, is what makes him attractive in Alberta, where Harper still holds iconic status and lives in the minds of provincial politicians. Years ago, Kenney held a similar reputation as being a political heavyweight able to unite two right-wing parties in Alberta after having a successful career in Ottawa as a Conservative cabinet minister.

Poilievre has a knack for tapping into certain sentiments that get people riled up.

“He has a talent for identifying issues that will resonate with groups of voters,” Young said. “He was talking about inflation before anybody else was that I can recall. And, you know, sure enough, here we are.

“It’s the issue that every politician is worrying about.”

Poilievre is a staunch enemy of a carbon tax and has been highly critical of vaccine mandates and lockdowns — all things many Alberta conservatives oppose as well, said Young.

“His willingness to go out and be seen with the convoy, I think, recommends him to many of the Alberta conservatives,” she added.

Melissa Caouette, a conservative strategist and principal of MC Consulting, said Poilievre’s “anti-gatekeeper” messaging and “sense of freedom” resonate with Albertans.

Provincially, the Alberta NDP and the United Conservatives both understand the value of deploying that message, too, she said.

“Albertans are inherently, you know, entrepreneurial, independent-minded people who have a rejection for policymakers from Central Canada sort of saying how things should be,” she said.

For Caouette, Poilievre isn’t simply attractive because he comes from the Harper-Kenney wing of the conservative movement, it’s that he’s a talented politician and communicator.

“Pierre is successful, I believe, because he’s picking up, for better or for worse, on the emotional and political feelings of people in Alberta.”

In some ways, Alberta conservatives just want to see the party returned to government in Ottawa and will support whichever candidate looks best poised to make that happen, said Caouette, especially given the perceptions around how the province’s energy sector has been treated under the Liberals.

He’s been dogged by controversy as well — he said he’d fire the governor of the Bank of Canada and faced criticism for promoting Bitcoin, a cryptocurrency, as a good investment, right before a massive cryptocurrency price crash.

He’s also been slammed by critics for appearing with Freedom Convoy figures attached to the anti-vaccine mandate movement that snarled Ottawa for days with noisy protests and hundreds of vehicles.

Tim Powers, chairman of Summa Strategies, noted some weaknesses in Poilievre as well.

While Poilievre “trades on a sense of entitlement that exists in Ottawa,” it comes across a bit ironically, said Powers. He has represented an Ottawa riding since 2004 and “has been part of that political class.”

“I think he’s still maturing as a political leader,” said Powers. “He certainly knows how to preach to the conservative choir; can he expand his lessons, his epistles and his gospel? That’s the key question.”

Poilievre may believe that he doesn’t have to expand his message broadly to Canadians during a general election, said Powers. He may think that stirring up anger is the right strategy.

But some of his recent mistakes may come back to bite him. In fact, “Teeth marks are in his buttocks right now,” said Powers.

The Bitcoin crash and the rhetoric around the Bank of Canada are two things he’s already taken flak over, he said, and Poilievre seems to have toned the rhetoric down around those.

“At some point it’s OK to rage at the machine and it’s OK to be disruptive,” Powers said. But “people want to see that you’re able to go from the screaming and hollering to be able to have a commonsensical, managerial approach.”

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