Embattled premier touts made-in-Alberta fix for U.S. gas prices

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EDMONTON, Alberta — Premier Jason Kenney’s job is on the line in Alberta, so naturally he is in Washington.

Vocal factions in his own United Conservative Party have been complaining for months that he's out of touch. Party members just voted in a high-stakes leadership review to be revealed Wednesday night.

If Kenney loses, he's likely out of a job.

One thing is certain about the days and weeks ahead, a former Kenney staffer tells POLITICO. "It will be chaos," they said. "Alberta has always been chaos."

But on what could be a turning point in his political career, the premier isn't cloistered with confidants in Calgary or Edmonton. He's in a salesman’s hat, pitching Alberta energy to Washington insiders.

“Ordinary American voters and people on Capitol Hill want to know how can they get gas prices down. And Canada is a solution,” he said Monday in Washington.

Neither his friends nor his enemies are surprised by the timing of the premier’s trip to D.C. He's a politician who never shies from bombast. Backing down isn't Kenney's style. He's more into doubling down.

Besides, the mail-in votes that will decide his fate are in the party's hands. All that's left is the counting.

“I’ve never lost an election, and I don’t plan on doing so now," Kenney told a contingent of Canadian reporters on Monday afternoon.

Kenney is due at the U.S. Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee, chaired by Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), on Tuesday morning. The Alberta premier touted the senator as an ally — an influential Democrat whose name doesn’t necessarily spark joy in the White House.

Seated at the head of a conference table at D.C.’s Mayflower Hotel on Monday, Kenney previewed his sales pitch, starting with the notion that Russia’s war should make Alberta an obvious dance partner.

“With the invasion of Ukraine, it's time to get real,” he said.

Kenney, who was last in Washington in January before Russia’s war, has arrived in town with a sharper message.

“If the United States wants to get off its addiction to OPEC conflict oil, if it wants to stop financing barrel bombs being used by Saudis against civilians in Yemen … then the United States should make a strategic decision,” he said.

He wants to partner with the Biden administration to work on a major pipeline, a successor to the Keystone XL project. But fraught political debate has made the idea of building new pipelines a tough sell on both sides of the border.

Biden revoked a key permit for the KXL pipeline on his first day in office, a move that effectively killed the cross-border project. Kenney blames the political hangover from KXL for stigmatizing Canadian oil for Americans. Canada is the energy partner with the supply the U.S. wants, he said, but more infrastructure is needed.

Kenney knows he’s not going to get a “quick win” out of Tuesday’s Senate hearing. The question is, will the premier survive to see how it all plays out?

‘I’ve never lost an election ...’

Jason Kenney's political career has spanned a quarter-century. He's not wrong about his record. He won seven elections to Canada's House of Commons before triumphing in both the 2017 United Conservative leadership race and the 2019 provincial election.

He was first elected to the House in 1997 as a populist Reform Party MP in a Calgary riding. He served in opposition until the rowdy Reformers united with the weakened Progressive Conservatives to form a new Conservative Party in 2003.

The party's founding leader, Stephen Harper, formed his first minority government in 2006. Kenney didn't crack Harper's first Cabinet, but he did serve as the prime minister’s parliamentary secretary for almost a year.

In 2007, Harper tapped him as secretary of state for multiculturalism. A year later, Kenney was in Cabinet as immigration minister — a post he held for five years. He developed a reputation as the government's most effective organizer in ethnic communities.

Kenney also served stints as employment minister and defense minister before Harper's Tories lost to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's resurgent Liberals in 2015. Within a year, Kenney had resigned his seat and embarked on a new mission — to repair the fractured right wing of Alberta's provincial Legislature.

He united the right and, two years later, ousted Rachel Notley, the province's first New Democratic Party premier. Mission accomplished, for the time being.

Three years on, Kenney is deeply unpopular. His weak approval rating with Albertans, for many months one of the worst of any Canadian premier, is a stinking albatross. And there's serious grumbling in the ranks, too.

Wednesday brings the result of a punishing leadership review ordered by the party earlier this year. Brian Jean, a former UCP leadership rival who also cut his teeth as a backbencher in Ottawa, insists the man who beat him to lead the UCP needs to go.

In April 2021, 18 members of Kenney's caucus condemned his imposition of enhanced Covid public health measures during the height of the spring's wave.

“After 13 painstaking months of Covid-19 public health restrictions, we do not support the additional restrictions imposed on Albertans, and we will continue advocating for a transparent path forward that provides certainty to Alberta families, communities and businesses,” they wrote in a letter.

That discontent never fully dissipated.

Performance review

The Angus Reid Institute's regular polling on premier approval pegged Kenney's support at an all-time low of 22 percent last fall. He's since regained eight points, sitting at 30 percent in March.

Put another way: 68 percent disapprove of his performance.

The pollster Maru also placed Kenney's support at 30 percent in March, tied for last in the federation with Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson.

Leger's polling for the Postmedia newspaper chain in March prodded voters' views of Kenney's future. Fifty-eight percent of all respondents said he should resign. Among UCP supporters, that number dropped to 31 percent. Another 43 percent of UCP voters wanted him to stay in the job, while one in four had no opinion.

Kenney insists he'll soldier on if he scores one vote more than 50 percent. Only 35 percent of UCP supporters told Leger that threshold was high enough. One in four said he needed to secure at least 60 percent. Nearly one in four said he required at least 75 percent.

On the eve of the big reveal, a survey conducted by Pollara for a team of University of Alberta researchers concluded that six in 10 Albertans want Kenney out of office. Less than half think he'll lose.

Nobody knows exactly how party members will actually vote. The majority of them live outside the province's major cities where opposition to Kenney runs hottest. A much smaller proportion live in Calgary, where Kenney wields the most influence.

The leadership review is also tainted by a strong undercurrent of alleged foul play. Kenney's critics, both inside his party and across the aisle, are all but certain he'll bend the rules to get his way. Jean has already accused the premier of cheating by illegally signing up bulk party memberships.

The premier's 2017 leadership victory is still the subject of a police investigation over alleged voter identity theft. And when the party replaced an in-person leadership review vote with mail-in balloting, critics alleged Kenney loyalists were protecting the leader from an embarrassing loss on a convention floor.

Only 55 percent of Pollara's respondents were somewhat or very confident the vote "will be conducted fairly."

‘Alberta has always been chaos’

It all adds up to either a crushing fall from grace for a former federal Cabinet minister who saved Alberta from the left-wing New Democratic Party, or the ultimate redemption story for an oil patch premier whose public persona is almost singularly defined by his career.

If Kenney wins, the chattering classes will move on to new questions: How many of the premier's political enemies, including Jean, will abandon the party? Will Kenney kick them out of caucus? And where will they go?

A divided right offers Notley's NDP a golden opportunity to win back power.

Many conservatives in the province are whispering about a modest group of MLAs getting the boot — somewhere between four and eight. But that number could be higher.

The result will be livestreamed Wednesday — just after Kenney returns from D.C.

The best-case scenario in Washington, he said, means making a successful imprint on U.S. lawmakers that Alberta has a critical role to play in America’s economy and energy security.

“Worst case is, we're told that we don't need you, we don't want you,” he said Monday. “I don't think that will happen.”

Home in Alberta though, it will be win or lose.

Nick Taylor-Vaisey reported from Edmonton, Alberta. Zi-Ann Lum reported from Washington, D.C.