Two former cabinet ministers collide: Breaking down the PC leadership battle between Glover and Stefanson

After Brian Pallister announced he was stepping down as Manitoba’s premier and Progressive Conservative leader, no fewer than seven current or former party officials considered a run to replace him.

It took 36 days of jockeying among potential candidates and winnowing by the party to reduce that field to two people.

Early on, cabinet ministers Scott Fielding and Rochelle Squires declared an interest in running for premier before determining they had no path to victory and no interest in the demands of a leadership campaign, respectively.

City Coun. Scott Gillingham assembled a campaign team and canvassed support among party members before he too determined his path to victory was impossible.

PC backbencher Shannon Martin and former party chief financial officer Ken Lee put together formal applications to run but fell short of actually entering the race when the party’s leadership election committee determined the final ballot on Thursday.

The Progressive Conservative Party is now left with a straight-up battle between Tuxedo MLA Heather Stefanson and former Conservative MP Shelly Glover, two veteran politicians familiar to Manitobans who watch politics, and familiar with the demands of governance themselves.

“This is now going to be a head-to-head race, whereas we thought it was going to be quite a bit more nuanced,” said Mary Agnes Welch, a principal with Winnipeg polling firm Probe Research.

The unpredictable dynamics of a multi-candidate race, where ranked party preferences and multiple ballots come into play, will not factor into what will end up being a binary choice for party members who have not already thrown their support behind Glover or Stefanson.

“There’s going to be a clear conflict of ideas and a clear conflict of personalities,” said Royce Koop, a political studies professor at the University of Manitoba.

When it comes to ideas, the primary policy difference between Stefanson and Glover right now involves vaccination requirements for public-facing government workers.

Stefanson supports the current orders, which will soon require some workers to get their shots or face frequent testing. Glover does not.

That alone may attract votes from party members who signed up to support Lee, who also opposed vaccination requirements to enter businesses and public places, provided those new party members actually mail in their ballots.

Heather Stefanson, seen here in 2017 in her role as justice minister, served in the cabinet of former Manitoba premier Brian Pallister. (John Woods/Canadian Press)

There are differences between the personalities of the two potential premiers, as well as their public personas.

Stefanson, in many ways, is the prototypical establishment candidate. She has represented an affluent Winnipeg riding for two decades and enjoys the support of most of the party’s MLAs. She served as a cabinet minister under Pallister and never criticized him in public when he was premier. 

She is also an extremely disciplined politician who rarely diverges from carefully worded talking points during public appearances.

Glover is also part of the party establishment, having served as a Conservative cabinet minister under former prime minister Stephen Harper when she was MP for Saint Boniface. But she has more of a working-class background and persona, owing quite a bit to her years of service as a Winnipeg police officer.

She also tends to shoot more from the hip when she speaks, relying more on instinct than predetermination.

“Shelly Glover has more of a kind of earthiness, a more populist appeal than Ms. Stefanson does,” Koop said.

Shelly Glover, at right with former prime minister Stephen Harper in this 2013 photo at what was then MTS Centre, served as Canada’s heritage minister in Harper’s cabinet. (Pat Kaniuga/CBC)

What Stefanson may offer instead is an air of stability. The problem for the former health minister is that likely is not what PC members want at a time when the party is deeply unpopular with Manitobans as a whole, mainly because of Pallister’s pandemic policies and prickly persona.

“I think conservatives themselves are frustrated, deeply frustrated. They read the polls. They hear from their neighbours. They talk amongst themselves. I think conservatives themselves know that the last couple of years in Manitoba was not great for them,” Welch said.

“The problem, though, is that parties are traditionally sort of bad at electing a really electable leader in a leadership race. It’s about ideology, it’s about personal connections. It’s about, where are you on the [political] spectrum?”

Welch said the primary question on the minds of PC members when they cast their ballots should be who is best positioned to defeat Wab Kinew and the NDP in 2023.

“That’s not always the equation that members have in their brain when they’re actually voting.”

While two years is a long time in politics, whoever becomes leader will have to work hard to disassociate herself from Pallister and his policies.

“That clean break from Pallister is going to be important,” Koop said.

“The government is very unpopular. It’ll be tough for either Heather Stefanson or Shelly Glover to lead the party to victory in the next election.”

On the other hand, demographics do aid both candidates in a general election.

“You really can’t win the premier’s job without women, winning Winnipeg, and especially Winnipeg women,” Welch said.

In the PC leadership race, Glover appears to have a clear advantage. While Stefanson enjoys the support of a majority of the PC caucus, Glover appears to have access to more actual votes from party members, especially if Lee’s supporters put their ballots in the mail.

Lee may have had enough votes to win the race, had he made it onto the ballot. The party’s one-member, one-vote leadership selection mechanism, which he co-created a decade ago, created a path for an insurgent candidate to claim the premier’s office.

“If that had happened, it would have been entirely the fault of the party and the rules that they set up,” Koop said.

Some fault could also be laid at the feet of Pallister and the party itself, for allowing memberships to dwindle between leadership campaigns. But this post-mortem is academic, barring a legal challenge by Lee over the party’s decision to keep him off the ballot.

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