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John Ibbitson: Will Tories learn lesson from Calgary Centre scare?

Danielle Smith learned the hard way; so did Mitt Romney. And Joan Crockatt had her own near-death experience.

All three, and Stephen Harper as well, should know by now: Economic conservatives can win elections, but social conservatism is a ticket to defeat.

Ms. Crockatt held Calgary Centre for the Conservatives in Monday night's by-election, but the result was much closer than it should have been. Early returns had Liberal challenger Harvey Locke at her heels in a riding that conservatives of one stripe or another have owned for decades.

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But the Conservative machine in the riding did the job of getting out its supporters. On a turnout of only 29.4 per cent, with all polls reporting, Ms. Crockatt captured 36.9 per cent of the vote, 20 percentage points below the Tories' last election result, and not quite 1,200 votes ahead of Mr. Locke.

Had the Greens not run such a strong campaign, capturing just under 26 per cent of the vote, the Liberals could have taken a Calgary riding for the first time since the 1960s.

Many Liberals will chastise the Greens for denying them victory in Calgary Centre by splitting the progressive vote. But the larger lesson might be that the Green Party is starting to walk on two feet. Not only did they place a respectable third in Calgary, Green candidate Donald Galloway came within a whisker of defeating the NDP's Murray Rankin in Victoria.

The lead see-sawed back and forth well into the early morning, before Mr. Rankin finally pulled ahead. Ultimately he garnered 37.2 per cent of the vote, compared to Mr. Galloway's 34.3 per cent. Green Leader Elizabeth May can be proud of her party's performance Monday night.

In the Ontario riding of Durham, the Tories cruised once again to an easy victory. The news there was that the NDP replaced the Liberals in the battle for second place.

But despite two wins, this was not a great night for the Conservatives. They put the wrong candidate in Calgary Centre and it almost cost them deep embarrassment.

Ms. Crockatt made many Calgary Conservatives uncomfortable. Though she characterizes herself as a pro-choice social moderate, her campaign team was dominated by Wildrose strategists, and Calgary West MP Rob Anders – perhaps the most staunchly socially conservative figure in the Tory caucus – campaigned at her side.

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In a riding that was entirely suburban or rural, Ms. Crockatt might have had an easier time. But Calgary Centre has its share of hipsters. And if they hadn't split their votes between the Liberals and the Greens – though some of the Green vote might also have come from disaffected Tories – Ms. Crockatt would have been a footnote Tuesday morning.

Danielle Smith's refusal to condemn homophobic and racist remarks by a couple of her own candidates during the Alberta provincial election earlier this year helped doom the Wildrose to defeat.

Ms. Smith has learned her lesson. At a party conference last weekend she insisted that Wildrose must moderate its tone: "Our policies must look forward to what Alberta will be, not what it once was," she declared. Clearly she believes the time has come for Wildrose 2.0.

If Mitt Romney had taken that message to heart, he might be president today. Instead, the Republican presidential candidate courted the Tea Party elements of the GOP – red in tooth and claw and neck – driving away so many young and women and minority voters that Barack Obama was comfortably re-elected.

Stephen Harper long ago banished all talk on banning abortion or gay marriage from his party's agenda. But the affections of many within his Alberta caucus, and in rural MPs elsewhere, are bound to social conservatism: for God and against abortion; for gun rights and against gay rights; for Wildrose and for Joan Crockatt. It almost proved her undoing.

If the Conservatives want to continue to dominate the ethnically diverse suburban ridings surrounding Toronto, as they did in Durham Monday night, if they want to want to remain strong in the Lower Mainland, if they want to continue total domination in Calgary, then they need to draw the proper lesson from Calgary Centre: In most parts of this country, Reform doesn't work. Wildrose 1.0 doesn't work. Social conservatism doesn't work.

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It doesn't work in Calgary Centre. Or in Alberta. Or in Canada.

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About the Author
Writer-at-large

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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