Heather Stefanson grinds out a win in a Manitoba leadership race few expected to be close

·5 min read
Newly elected Progressive Conservative Leader and Manitoba premier-designate Heather Stefanson speaks to media at the Victoria Inn in Winnipeg Saturday. (John Woods/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Newly elected Progressive Conservative Leader and Manitoba premier-designate Heather Stefanson speaks to media at the Victoria Inn in Winnipeg Saturday. (John Woods/The Canadian Press - image credit)

From the second she disclosed her desire to lead Manitoba's Progressive Conservative Party, premier-designate Heather Stefanson did everything in her power to make her victory appear inevitable.

She launched her campaign in August, before the party cobbled together rules for its leadership contest. She declared her intention to run before other MLAs with leadership ambitions even had a chance to canvass their party colleagues for support.

She appeared at her campaign launch on Aug. 18 with a majority of the existing Progressive Conservative Party caucus lined up at her side. She had allies on the party's executive council that set contest timelines so short that they effectively prevented Conservative MPs from lining up against her.

The message, to anyone else who toyed with the idea of running for PC leader, was clear: run against me and you will be crushed like a cankerworm beneath the wheels of a Chevy Suburban.

But that pulverizing never happened. Ten weeks after Stefanson held her show-of-force campaign launch, the party's electorate handed her a razor-thin victory that may yet be contested further by her rival, Shelly Glover.

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Stefanson defeated Glover by a margin of 363 votes. She captured 8,405 ballots, compared to 8,042 for Glover.

That works out to a 51-per-cent majority in a race where Stefanson was expected to win by a decisive margin, mainly by virtue of her support from the party establishment.

Stefanson made few campaign promises, aside from pledges to improve the relationship between the government and Indigenous people, increase health-care capacity and be a better listener than former premier Brian Pallister, who was widely regarded as insular and standoffish.

Glover, a relative outsider, made similar promises, but also made some overtures to a right-wing flank of the party that opposes pandemic restrictions.

"The gap was very close," Stefanson said Saturday night in a ballroom at Winnipeg's Victoria Inn, where the party held a scaled-down leadership convention. "We never, ever for one day took this campaign for granted."

And the campaign is not over yet.

Glover declined to concede defeat on Saturday, citing the inability of some party members to obtain a ballot.

On Thursday, the former Conservative MP called for the vote to be put off until every member had a chance to vote. She also would not say if she would accept the results at the convention.

So it wasn't much of a surprise when Glover followed through on that equivocation with an equally vague refusal Saturday to either concede defeat or challenge the results of the leadership selection process.

"I really can't concede, right, until I do the homework, and it is typical that when there is a close race that there are certain rules and regulations that apply about recounts and that kind of thing, and I honestly don't even know what the rules are," Glover told reporters in a scrum.

"I'd love to be able to say, 'Oh, yes, I concede right now,' but I don't have the information that allows me to do that and I want to do my homework on that."

Glover said she plans to debrief with her campaign team.

The Progressive Conservative Party appeared to ignore the prospect of a formal challenge when it was asked to comment on Glover's refusal to concede defeat.

"Heather Stefanson and Shelly Glover should be congratulated on well-run and hard-fought campaigns," party spokesperson Keith Stewart said in a statement.

"History was made today with the election of Manitoba's first woman premier and the most votes ever cast by members of a provincial party to elect a new leader."

This too is not a surprise. Before party president Tom Wiebe announced the results, leadership selection committee chair George Orle took the stage to reject the notion the race was conducted shoddily.

Orle insisted every effort was made to ensure party members were able to vote. But he also conceded some ballots did not get to members.

This suggests some basis for a Glover protest, should she choose to contest the results. She has little to lose in doing so, beyond earning unflattering comparisons to U.S. Republicans following the 2020 presidential election.

John Woods/The Canadian Press
John Woods/The Canadian Press

The prospect of some form of detente between Glover and Stefanson appears dim, even though Stefanson said she would entertain the idea of creating a role for her opponent in government,

"I just went and gave Shelly Glover a big hug. You know, we're going to unite this party together," Stefanson said.

Glover said the hug was her idea. She also said she has only one position in mind in a Stefanson government.

"Premier," Glover said, eliciting laughter from reporters.

There also are not many positions available in government for a politician without a seat.

The vacant seat in Fort Whyte, left open when former premier Brian Pallister left office, may be subject to an open nomination process.

There's already a potential contender in former Winnipeg Blue Bomber Obby Khan, who endorsed Stefanson's leadership campaign. On Friday, Khan said he intends to pursue some form of public service, after he was asked whether he intends to seek the Fort Whyte nomination.

No matter what Glover does next, she has already succeeded in doing something that seemed improbable 10 weeks ago.

She denied Heather Stefanson an easy path to victory.

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