As soon as Tennessee senator Bob Corker announced his plans to retire Wednesday, speculation about who would take his place began. And in the era of President Donald Trump and future senator Kid Rock, it is required that one of the potential successors be a celebrity. In this case it’s Peyton Manning.
The former NFL quarterback who starred at the University of Tennessee before playing for the Colts and Broncos could find his second act in politics, some pundits are suggesting. At least one congressman says he could see it too. Tennessee representative Scott DesJarlais told Business Insider that Manning may make a Senate run, but said the 41-year-old is more likely to wait until 2020, when Senator Lamar Alexander, who will be 80 on Election Day, faces reelection. Corker himself was asked about the possibility of Manning running and told Politico that “it’s possible,” but not likely.
If Manning does call an audible (Omaha!) and take a run at 2018, he’ll likely do so against veteran politicians. Representative Marsha Blackburn and Governor Bill Haslam are the early GOP favorites. But unlike those two, Manning doesn’t have a record of public political positions or experience in office that would provide some clues as to how he might legislate. Still, he’s provided some clues.
Over the years, Manning has donated thousands to GOP politicians, including Corker, former Law & Order star and presidential candidate Fred Thompson and George W. Bush. In the 2016 presidential election, Manning and his brother Eli joined team Jeb! In 2012, he gave generously to Mitt Romney.
If Manning’s preference in politicians is any indication of his own leanings, then he’s an Establishment Republican in the mold of Corker himself. But we might get a little more insight on where Manning stands by looking at the people he’s gone into business with, specifically Papa John’s CEO John Schnatter, the first person Manning kissed after winning the Super Bowl last year.
The business relationship between Manning and Schnatter began in 2012 when Manning bought 21 Papa John’s franchises in Denver after joining the Broncos. Several months prior, Schnatter complained about the onerous effects of Obamacare, which he said would require a price hike of 11 to 14 cents per pizza to pay for employee health insurance. That, he suggested, was a bad thing.
In recent years, Schnatter, whom Manning has appeared alongside in plenty of Papa John’s commercials, has closely aligned himself with the Koch brothers. Together they have opened centers of “free enterprise” at the Universities of Louisville and Kentucky, along with Schnatter’s alma mater Ball State. While ostensibly dedicated to exploring free-market principles, these academic centers have another goal, as Charles Koch admitted to Forbes in 2015. “You’ve gotta change the hearts and minds of the people to understand what really makes society fairer and what’s going to change their lives. And it’s not more of this government control,” he said.
It’s unfair to transpose all of the Kochs’ opinions onto Manning, and his lack of publicly articulated policy positions makes it hard to pin down any specific areas of agreements. But there is at least one issue on which Manning has publicly indicated a willingness to break with conservative orthodoxy and align himself with the libertarian leanings of the Koch brothers — marijuana legalization. When Manning bought his Denver pizza places in 2012, just after the state voted to legalize weed, he cited that, perhaps jokingly, as a motivating factor. David and Charles Koch, too, appear to be “down with marijuana.”
Admittedly, there isn’t much to go on when trying to decipher Manning’s politics, but there’s enough to know that he’s the kind of Establishment candidate that President Trump might campaign against. It’s hard to see him winning the support of Trump’s biggest booster, Steve Bannon. But he does have one thing working for him when it comes to Trump: The president already admires Manning, a fellow celebrity and Saturday Night Live host.
“I very much have always liked Peyton Manning,” Trump said on CBS’s Face the Nation ahead of Super Bowl 50 in 2016. “He is a very good guy. I know him. And he is a very, very good guy.”
Not long after, Manning was asked about that endorsement and prodded to provide one of his own for Trump. Like a seasoned politician, he demurred.
These days, it’s still not clear if Manning has fully boarded the Trump train, but he’s at least indicated a willingness not to throw himself on the tracks. Last July, he posed for a selfie with Donald Trump Jr. And in January, just days after Trump’s inauguration, Manning spoke at a GOP retreat in Philadelphia. A couple months later, after Politico reported that Manning had his eye on Alexander’s seat in 2020, Manning said he has “no interest in the political world.” Given the reports to the contrary, it’s a little hard to believe that — but maybe Manning is just practicing his lying for when he gets to Washington.