Tennessee’s next U.S. Senate race is next year, when Republican Bob Corker is expected to run for a third term.
But the political contest that has people talking will come two years later, when the state’s senior senator, Republican Lamar Alexander, is up for re-election.
Is Alexander ready to retire?
The political prognosticators think he is. The news website Politico reported a few weeks ago Alexander has told GOP insiders he has decided not to run for a fourth term in 2020. Stirring the pot further, the report speculated that legendary quarterback Peyton Manning might run for Alexander’s seat.
But in a recent interview with the USA Today Network-Tennessee, Alexander insisted he has made no decision about his political future.
“Everybody likes Peyton Manning, including me,” the senator said, chuckling, from his Senate office just across the street from the Capitol.
One of the advantages of a six-year Senate term is you don’t have to worry every two years about whether you’re going to run for re-election, Alexander said.
So with the election still three years away, “I’m focusing on reauthorizing higher education, fixing the health-care system for all of the Tennesseans who are about to be left in the lurch without insurance, and I’m not thinking about that (race),” Alexander said.
“I’m doing all of the things a person would normally do to be in a position” to run again, Alexander said. “But I have the luxury of not having to think about that every two years.”
Alexander has had a long career in Tennessee politics, and few would blame him if he decided it was time to kick back and enjoy retirement. He has been a governor and U.S. education secretary and even ran twice for president. He also served as president of Manning’s alma mater, the University of Tennessee.
In the Senate, Alexander is known as a dealmaker who works well with Republicans and Democrats. But he’s 76 now. In four years, when his current term is up, he’ll be 80. If he should run again and win a fourth term, he would be 86 when that term ended.
Tom Ingram, a political operative who lives in Knoxville and worked for years as Alexander’s right-hand man, said he has seen no evidence Alexander is ready to retire.
“As long as he is as healthy mentally and physically as he is — he’s as sharp as I’ve ever seen him — it would be unfortunate for the Senate and the state if he did,” Ingram said. “Because I think he has reached a level of importance as a senator. I’ve never seen him more engaged.”
Speculation that Manning might run probably started because he spoke at the congressional Republican leaders’ winter retreat in Philadelphia in late January, Ingram said. But Ingram said he has seen no indication that Manning has taken any steps to set up a campaign.
If he had, “I think we would have heard it,” Ingram said.
The Tennessee Republican Party said it also hasn’t talked with Manning about a possible run for Senate.
"We have not had any political discussions with Peyton Manning,” said Scott Golden, the state party chairman. “Undoubtedly, he is a Tennessee hero and if he should ever choose to use his legendary determination, knowledge and drive in politics, he would be an extremely formidable candidate."
Manning, a frequent advertising pitchman who is still actively involved with UT, did not return messages left through his non-profit foundation in Colorado.
Alexander said he hasn’t discussed the race with Manning, either.
“I know him and like him,” he said. “I saw him the other night. But we didn’t discuss that. I suspect he has other things on his mind.”
There’s no age limit for serving in the Senate. South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond was 100 when he finally called it quits in 2003. Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens was 85 when he left office in 2009. California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, currently the oldest still-serving senator, will turn 84 in June.
Michael Collins is the Washington correspondent for the USA Today Network-Tennessee. His weekly Tennessee in D.C. column highlights Volunteer State lawmakers, causes and connections. Contact him at 703-854-8927, at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter at @mcollinsNEWS.