What Kenney’s exit from federal politics means for Tory leadership

Kenney is already staffing his campaign with former federal aides

Alberta Conservative MP Jason Kenney arrives at an event announcing he will be seeking the leadership of Alberta's Progressive Conservative party in Calgary, Alta., Wednesday, July 6, 2016. (Jeff McIntosh/CP)

Alberta Conservative MP Jason Kenney arrives at an event announcing he will be seeking the leadership of Alberta’s Progressive Conservative party in Calgary, Alta., Wednesday, July 6, 2016. (Jeff McIntosh/CP)

OTTAWA — Jason Kenney’s decision not to seek the leadership of the federal Conservatives will have a domino effect on the race and the national party.

The first tile has already fallen over.

The longtime Tory MP announced his bid to lead the Alberta Progressive Conservatives on Wednesday and is already staffing up his provincial campaign with former federal aides.

Kenney is known for inspiring fierce loyalty among staff, once dubbed the “Jasonistas,” and it’s likely those diehards also would have followed him down the federal leadership road.

But now they’ll leave the federal scene for Alberta, taking with them the tactics, the political savvy and, most importantly, thousands of contacts Kenney built up over 20 years serving in Ottawa.

“He has supporters from across Canada who will want to help him succeed in Alberta, which will draw some talent and money away from the national party in the short term,” said his former cabinet colleague James Moore, once rumoured to have leadership aspirations of his own.

Kenney is a workhorse widely recognized for his drive in building Conservative party relationships with Canada’s cultural communities.

One of the reasons he was once considered the presumptive next leader of the federal party was due to his perceived head-and-shoulders lead over other potential candidates among this key voting block.

It’s there that his departure opens a door for other would-be leaders, said Jason Lietaer, a party strategist.

“That’s the race now: To try to capitalize on the vacuum in those communities where Mr. Kenney made inroads for the first time in a long time for a Conservative politics — the first time ever in many cases — and to try to get involved in those communities and fill that vacuum.”

That could be difficult for current candidate and MP Kellie Leitch, whose name remains associated with her controversial 2015 election campaign announcement of a “barbaric cultural practices” tip line.

But candidate and MP Michael Chong, whose stump speech begins with a story about being the child of immigrant parents, could shift easily into the space vacated by Kenney’s departure.

And for Quebec MP Maxime Bernier, also running, Kenney’s absence will provide some economic policy elbow room. Both Bernier and Kenney like to trumpet free market capitalism.

About half a dozen others are considering a run for the federal party leadership. The person most often cited as the biggest federal rival to Kenney is former cabinet minister Peter MacKay, who still has not publicly declared his plans.

Kenney’s decision to jump into provincial politics came relatively recently. He’d been contemplating a federal run for far longer. In that process, he was weighing two options — run himself or spend his substantial political capital backing a preferred choice.

While he’s unlikely to play king maker publicly, he could still influence the national race behind the scenes.

Someone else, however, also has their eye on the role — T.V. personality and businessman Kevin O’Leary.

“The options are to go for it myself or back someone I really like,” he told The Canadian Press on Wednesday.

MORE: The Conservative Party’s Kevin O’Leary factor

O’Leary say his chief goal is to find a way to bring down the current Liberal government, and he feels he can use his considerable social media and television presence to do that as party leader or by supporting another candidate.

Kenney’s decision makes the race more interesting, but won’t influence his own choice, he said.

The same holds true for Ontario MP Lisa Raitt, who’s also considering a leadership bid.

“I’m still on my own timeline for decision making and everything that happens until then (including people saying they are in or they are not in) will be in the mix,” Raitt said in an e-mail.

“But the main decision is a personal one — and not about anyone else.”

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