The Harper Conservatives called a 78-day election period to help strengthen their fundraising and campaign spending advantage in 337 ridings.
The 338th is currently held by Brent Rathgeber. Aside from the odd ones who simply love the smell of fresh lawn sign in the morning, Rathgeber is perhaps the happiest opposition politician about the premature election campaign.
The two-term member for Edmonton-St. Albert is running for the first time as an Independent, after resigning from the Conservative caucus in 2013. This means he’s free to say basically whatever he wants—caucus control was a reason he left Harper’s team—but being unyoked from the party’s message discipline also means Rathgeber has been unyoked from the ability to fundraise outside of election periods, as his rivals can.
In Canada, MPs can raise all the campaign money they want but cannot issue receipts for tax credits. That’s the purview of political parties, riding associations and election candidates. There can be (and is) a Conservative riding association for Edmonton-St. Albert, but there cannot be (and is not) an Independent Member Brent Rathgeber association to raise dollars. Without a party, Rathgeber can only fundraise through Door No. 3: being a candidate.
And an MP only becomes an official candidate during—yes, that’s right—an election. When the writ dropped on Aug. 2, Rathgeber started with zero dollars in his campaign war chest, and will remain at that total for at least a few more days. He’s begun gathering nomination signatures and readying his candidate’s package; only once Elections Canada approves his package and declares him an official candidate will Rathgeber be able to begin gathering donations for his signs, website and other campaign expenses.
Related: Our Q&A with Brent Rathgeber
Rathgeber had initially expected to be able to begin fundraising in mid-September. With the election campaign more than twice as long as legally required, the Independent has a lot more runway to gain on his riding’s odds-on favourite, Conservative lawyer Michael Cooper.
“I’ve got a list of about 15 businesspeople who have indicated they will be donating to me. Now, I have time to make good on those pledges,” Rathgeber said. He plans to hold a fundraiser or two, but won’t hit the suburban cul-de-sacs and their doors until next month.
“I’m still going to start on or about Labour Day. Half of my team is on vacation.”
The early election call serves him rather well, but he’ll still grumble publicly about the long campaign’s added cost to taxpayers. “That being said, it’s still a terrible idea,” he said.
Rathgeber is trying to rally the anti-Conservative forces on Twitter with the hashtag #rathagainstthemachine for the riding now named St. Albert-Edmonton. The Conservative machine in his riding came into this year with nearly $36,000 in the bank, according to Elections Canada—much of that money raised when Rathgeber was still a party MP.
When the government brought in its Fair Elections Act last year, Rathgeber bid to add in a clause letting Independent MPs register early as candidates. (He agrees there should be heavy controls on Independents, to prevent “charlatanism.”) That amendment failed in committee.
Cooper, who declined an interview request, will likely win. The Independent readily admits he won in 2008 and 2011 on the strength of the Conservative banner, and now must use his own popularity and local record to pry loose votes from the Conservatives and progressive parties. He expresses confidence he can shake loose “close to half” of his past Conservative support, and can tell uncertain Liberal voters that he opposed the government’s anti-terrorism Bill C-51 and Justin Trudeau supported it.
The self-branded “small c” conservative likes to refer to the 2008 Independent campaign of Bill Casey, the Nova Scotian who actually boosted his vote share after bolting from the Conservative fold over the federal budget’s treatment of Atlantic Canada. He doesn’t mention Helena Guergis, the three-term Conservative turfed because of an ultimately fruitless RCMP investigation. Her Independent campaign landed her in distant third place behind the NDP and Kellie Leitch, the Conservative winner in Simcoe-Grey.
Then there’s the case of John Nunziata, who was expelled from the Chrétien Liberal caucus in 1996, then won the subsequent election on his own name. The Nunziata brand wasn’t enough in 2000, when the Liberals won his Toronto seat.
Several seats in the Edmonton area may be up for grabs among progressive parties and, in the provincial election, the NDP swept the city and suburban St. Albert. But, far from the Alberta capital’s progressive centre, the Liberals and NDP haven’t yet selected their candidates. Rathgeber isn’t worried about vote-splitting on his left, believing the NDP’s federal surge has more to do with C-51 than with Rachel Notley sweeping out the Alberta Tory dynasty.
While he doesn’t believe in another big orange wave, Rathgeber will draw another shred of hope from the provincial election.
“If May 5th showed me anything, it’s that votes can be moved,” he said. And, once the elections office stamps his papers, his campaign dollars can be, as well.