Winnowing candidate fields

College football strategist Al Borges, recently named offensive coordinator at San Diego State University, was once asked at another school why his offense was misfiring. He said that failure in football is often more about “the Jimmies and the Joes than the X’s and O’s.” Borges knows that, no matter how well designed his playbook, it takes great athletes to make the plays on the field.

The same is true of politics. Just as Al Borges would be a more successful coach if he were a better recruiter, political parties will succeed when they attract better candidates. Right now is the season for recruiting success. Just as NCAA football coaches are scouring the nation for recruits before national signing day next month, party leaders are seeking candidates and welcoming aspiring walk-ons.

Here’s where the football-politics analogy gets more intriguing. You’d think that the Democrats — this year’s “national champions” — would find recruiting easy, while the “also-ran” Republicans should be having difficulty getting a foot in the door. But prior success and glory doesn’t always attract recruits.

Not all players are wired that way. Some want to play now. Go to the University of Florida and you may not play for years, because Coach Urban Meyer has so many outstanding upperclassmen returning from the Gators’ own national championship squad. Kids who want playing time now, or who have a legacy affiliation with a particular school, are ready to suit up for a less storied football program. So Al Borges and recruiters at doormat schools find eager aspirants because their teams offer opportunity.

A similar trend is proving to be true for the Republicans. Even without a president in the White House or a governor in most states, recruitment is going well in key states. Look at Borges’s California. The Republicans, despite the party’s mediocrity there in recent years, have an abundance of gubernatorial aspirants, more than the Democrats. And these Republicans aren’t just long shots.

Former eBay Chairwoman Meg Whitman is a four-star quarterback with a 4.4 time in the 40-yard dash and a cannon for an arm. (Actually, I’m exaggerating because I intend to help her; her best time is just 4.6 in the 40.) She will likely face down a high-powered primary field that includes a former congressman and a state insurance official who’s worth millions.

Michigan is another state where Republican fortunes have been on the slide. Yet there are three or four rumored gubernatorial candidates, all of whom are top-drawer. Brooks Patterson, Oakland County executive extraordinaire, is mulling a Republican bid, as is the state’s attorney general, the secretary of state and a member of the congressional delegation, Pete Hoekstra.

Things are going so well in California and Michigan — based mainly on self-recruited candidates — that some insiders may believe the party should help winnow the field by getting some gubernatorial candidates to look at other opportunities. Many feel it makes little sense to allow a huge field of contenders that leads to the defeat of three or four quality individuals. Their ambition would be more profitably employed elsewhere. And then there’s the ill will and bruised feelings that invariably result from a multi-candidate primary, negativity that can carry over to November.

Unlike football, with its limited number of scholarships, politics has no restrictions on recruits. In my view, that’s good. We’re going to need strong candidates to win those key gubernatorial contests.

Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” rule should be our guiding principle. Big, competitive primaries prove who’s fit to win in November. And if a candidate has the gumption to try and overwhelm a large field, they’ve passed the first fitness test for my Republican Party. I am looking for candidates who want to compete, even at the risk of getting injured. Wounds heal, but losses don’t.

Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.