NONE of Heather Stefanson’s former cabinet colleagues is willing to challenge her for the party leadership.
Families Minister Rochelle Squires — who had said she was thinking about running to replace Premier Brian Pallister — shocked her supporters by announcing on social media Tuesday that she had decided against it.
"I am truly humbled and honoured to have even been considered for the role by incredible people who I hold in high regard," Squires wrote. "I thank each of them for their confidence in me and their kind words of encouragement."
In an interview, Squires said the party’s leadership contest rules — paying a $25,000 fee and signing up 1,000 new party members — weren’t a factor.
"Absolutely not," said Squires. "It didn’t play into my decision."
Instead, Squires said being a handson mother and grandmother, a cabinet minister, and helping her constituents as MLA for Riel is enough.
"This is where my focus is," she said.
"I am incredibly excited by having so many women as part of this (leadership) equation and I was humbled by being one of them."
Later in the day, Finance Minister Scott Fielding, another person talked about for months as being a possible candidate, bowed out of the race.
Fielding told The Canadian Press he will support Stefanson, who has the backing of most Tory caucus members.
"I do think that she’s the right person at the right time to lead the province," said Fielding.
Stefanson, the former health minister, announced her intention to run for the leadership last week, and was accompanied by most of her MLA colleagues. Twenty-six of them now support her.
Government whip Andrew Micklefield was one of them. On Tuesday, he was dropped from the role because caucus officers are supposed to be neutral in leadership contests. MLA Blaine Pederson will take over the position.
Former Tory MP Shelly Glover told the Free Press Tuesday she plans to run against Stefanson and she hopes others join the race.
Winnipeg city Coun. Scott Gillingham issued a statement in which he said he is mulling his options.
"The rules that the party executive council set (Monday night) present some organizational and financial challenges," he said. "However, thousands of Manitobans and I want this leadership race to be a real and robust debate about the direction of the provincial government.
"So I will be discussing my potential candidacy with my family and friends in the days ahead."
Royce Koop, a political studies professor at the University of Manitoba, said he believes an outside candidate has a real chance.
"I wouldn’t discount someone on the outside," said Koop.
"There is the possibility the show of strength from Heather Stefanson might scare off potential candidates, or it might leave the field open to just one candidate. Sometimes you chase most people out, but not everyone."
Koop said unlike Stefanson, candidates such as Gillingham and Glover wouldn’t be put in the tough spot of defending decisions made the Pallister government.
"Gillingham even said he was against Bill 64 a few weeks ago," he said. "He has connections to rural Manitoba. It could shape up to be a race.
"I think there are PC members who don’t want an acclamation."
If there is a robust leadership race, it would go against the party’s history. It has been almost 40 years since the Tories held a leadership vote where the results were not predictable.
Pallister was acclaimed as leader in 2012, Hugh McFadyen received 67 per cent of the vote compared to Ron Schuler’s 21 per cent in 2006, and Stuart Murray was acclaimed in 2000.
You’d have to go back to 1983, during the leadership race in the wake of Sterling Lyon’s defeat to the NDP’s Howard Pawley, to see a hotly contested battle. Gary Filmon became leader by defeating finance minister Brian Ransom.
Chris Adams, an adjunct professor in the University of Manitoba’s political studies department, said he has heard another name being tossed around: Dayna Spiring, president and CEO of Economic Development Winnipeg.
He said having a woman as a leader could help the party capture more votes from women.
"Over the past many years, the PCs don’t do as well with women than men," said Adams. "But when they can bring in women voters, the party succeeds."
Paul Thomas, professor emeritus of political studies at the University of Manitoba, said regardless of what Squires said, he believes the $25,000 fee and requirement to sign up 1,000 new members makes it very difficult for would-be candidates.
"If you had a suspicious mind, you might think the Conservative party establishment has just backed the Tuxedo MLA to fast-track her to become the leader and then the premier as well," said Thomas.
Late Tuesday, backbench Tory Shannon Martin said he was considering the logistics of a leadership bid.
Kevin Rollason is one of the more versatile reporters at the Winnipeg Free Press. Whether it is covering city hall, the law courts, or general reporting, Rollason can be counted on to not only answer the 5 Ws — Who, What, When, Where and Why — but to do it in an interesting and accessible way for readers.