Former Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway will always be remembered by Coloradoans as the orchestrator of “The Drive” — a 98-yard touchdown march in the closing moments of the 1987 American Football Conference Championship game.
Whether the Hall-of-Famer and statewide sports hero has the drive to score a big win for Colorado Republicans in 2008 is another matter, and it’s the subject of growing speculation now that Sen. Wayne Allard (R-Colo.) is not running.
Elway’s office at the Colorado Crush of the Arena Football League said yesterday that Elway “has no intentions of running,” and observers say a 2008 Senate bid that could muddy his popular image is unlikely, though attractive to the party.
Colorado Republicans have shown an interest in celebrity candidates in the past — Republican beer baron Pete Coors lost narrowly in 2004 to current Sen. Ken Salazar (D) — and some have suggested they will look in that direction now that the other Senate seat is open and top statewide candidates appear unlikely to run.
And there is no bigger celebrity in the state than Elway.
Allard’s announcement on Monday that he would not seek a third term has left Republicans searching for a candidate in what’s set to be among the toughest and most expensive Senate races in the country. A candidate with top name recognition and a golden image like Elway’s would have a serious leg up.
Former Rep. Scott McInnis (R-Colo.), who said he will run if former Gov. Bill Owens doesn’t, told the Associated Press last month that if Owens bows out, the major parties would also likely search for celebrity candidates such as Elway. He said he thought “Elway could clear the field.”
Owens has defused talk that he would run.
If Colorado Republicans go after Elway, the situation would be similar to the Illinois Senate race of 2004, when Republicans tried hard to recruit former Chicago Bears Coach and Hall-of-Famer Mike Ditka to run against now-Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) for an open seat.
Ditka decided not to run, and Republicans settled for Alan Keyes, who lost badly.
Elway, a two-time Super Bowl winner, has been involved mostly behind the scenes in Republican politics since retiring in the late 1990s. He has generally focused on the top-of-the-ticket races — the Senate in 2004 and governorship in 2006 — while dabbling in business ventures like car dealerships and the Crush.
Elway’s nine-year relationship with a Denver-area car dealership chain ended late last year, prompting some to suggest politics was next.
He has given thousands to Colorado GOP candidates including McInnis, Coors, Rep. Tom Tancredo and 2006 7th district House candidate Rick O’Donnell. He has also contributed to former Rep. Rick Lazio (R-N.Y.) and the Republican National Committee, according to Federal Election Commission reports. He contributed more in the 2006 cycle than previous cycles.
Colorado GOP consultant Katy Atkinson said Elway increased his activity this past cycle, but she also emphasized that his name has previously been thrown out as a potential House candidate and in 2004 for the Senate seat.
“I think if John Elway wants it, it’s his,” Atkinson said, referring to the Republican nomination and likely the seat too. “He has god-like status in Colorado.”
The Colorado Republican Party is on the verge of changing chairmen, with Dick Wadhams likely to become the new head in March, and the decision whether to woo Elway could rest with him.
State party spokesman Bryant Adams said Elway would be “a viable candidate,” and it would help that he could self-fund to some extent.
“I’d say his name I.D.’s probably pretty close to 100 [percent],” Adams said. “The question is: Would he want to get in? I just don’t know, frankly.”
Many in Colorado politics subscribe to the view that Elway would be formidable, but they still doubt he would give up his private life.
“You just don’t see him do the whole policy-strengthening and intense schmoozing you see from somebody thinking about it,” independent pollster Floyd Ciruli said.
Others see Elway as neither a likely candidate nor an attractive one. Mort Marks, a longtime GOP operative in Arapahoe County, where Elway conducts his business, said Republicans are tossing Elway’s name out “for no reason.”
“It would not be an automatic win,” Marks said. “It’s very equivalent to running Pete Coors.”
The Coors comparison is just one Elway would have to deal with while his prospects are being assessed. Coors was well known and well liked in Colorado, but he proved a less-than-polished politician and lost 51-47 to Salazar.
Bruce Peterson, a former Arapahoe County GOP chairman, said he’s encouraged about the Elway talk, which he’s heard both publicly and privately. But he said Coors and others might have ruined it for Elway by turning Coloradoans sour on “rich Republicans.”
“I think there’s a concern that we might have a similar situation with Elway, entering the picture with similar credentials,” Peterson said.
The other main comparisons would be with sports figures like Ditka. Numerous athletes and coaches have served or are serving in Congress, including: NBA Hall-of-Famer former Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.); NFL Hall-of-Famer former Rep. Steve Largent (R-Okla.); Hall of Fame baseball pitcher Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.); and former Rep. J.C. Watts (R-Okla.), a college football star at the University of Oklahoma.
Recent sports-to-politics pathways have proven less successful.
Last cycle, Republican Lynn Swann, an NFL Hall-of-Famer with the Pittsburgh Steelers, proved politically inept in his bid to unseat Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell (D). Also, former Rep. Tom Osborne (R-Neb.), a famous University of Nebraska football coach, lost in the Republican gubernatorial primary.
Democrats for now appear set to go with Rep. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) who yielded to Salazar in 2004 and said soon after that he would run for Allard’s seat. Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper (D), who packs some celebrity appeal, has said he’s not interested and appears the only alternative to Udall right now.
On the Republican side, another local celebrity, radio show host Dan Caplis, is also reportedly considering running.
McInnis, who left Congress after 2004, had more than $900,000 in his most recent FEC filing.