Inhofe’s resignation shakes up GOP politics in Oklahoma

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — The decision by Oklahoma’s senior U.S. senator, Jim Inhofe, to step down from the seat he’s held for decades is expected to trigger a flurry of political hopefuls jumping into the race to succeed him.

Inhofe, 87, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, announced his decision on Friday and endorsed his chief of staff, Luke Holland, 35, as his replacement. But numerous high-profile Republicans in the state also are considering a possible run, including U.S. Reps. Markwayne Mullin and Kevin Hern, which would topple even more political dominoes as GOP hopefuls vie for those seats.

“I expect the primary to be very crowded,” said Michael Crespin, a political science professor at the University of Oklahoma and the director of the school’s Carl Albert Congressional Research and Studies Center. “It’s pretty rare for a U.S. Senate seat to open up, and so ... if you have ambition to run, this is your shot.”

Other potential GOP candidates include former Speaker of the Oklahoma House T.W. Shannon, who ran for U.S. Senate in 2014; Lt. Gov. Matt Pinnell; and Tulsa attorney Gentner Drummond, who is currently running for attorney general. Tulsa pastor Jackson Lahmeyer, a political newcomer who has launched a right-wing challenge to Oklahoma’s other Republican senator, James Lankford, also said he is considering vying for Inhofe’s seat.

Gov. Kevin Stitt said in a statement that he is “fully committed” to running for reelection in the fall. The race for governor, which includes State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister, who switched parties to run as a Democrat, had been expected to be the most closely watched, but all that changed with Inhofe’s announcement.

“It really shakes things up,” Crespin said. “What was looking like an election with not a lot of competitive races, at least in the primary phase, now we’re going to have a very competitive primary.”

Inhofe did not attend a press event about his announcement in Oklahoma City on Friday because he had “a mild case of COVID,” Holland said on his boss’ behalf.

Inhofe, who was elected to a fifth Senate term in 2020, said he will continue to serve until Jan. 3, 2023.

“Nothing is going to change, as far as I’m concerned,” Inhofe said as he called in for the press event. “We are going to continue the work we’ve been doing.”

Inhofe, a staunch conservative, has long dismissed global warming as a hoax and famously tossed a snowball on the Senate floor during a Washington snowstorm to prove his point. On Friday, Holland said he agrees with Inhofe’s position on manmade climate change.

“Jim Inhofe is exactly right on that,” Holland said. “It’s just an assault by the left against oil and gas.”

Inhofe said he decided to resign a few weeks ago so that he could spend more time with his wife, Kay.

The timing of Inhofe’s announcement is related to a new Oklahoma law that requires the governor to call a special election if a lawmaker announces they intend to retire before March 1. The special election would be held concurrently with the statewide primary, runoff and general election, part of the nation’s midterms.

That means Oklahoma voters will be electing both of their U.S. senators in November because Lankford is up for reelection as well.

“The Senate is losing a warrior,” Lankford said. “His absence will be felt, and he will be missed.”

Oklahoma hasn’t sent a Democrat to the Senate since 1990, and Republicans will be heavily favored to keep Inhofe’s seat in the GOP column.

Oklahoma’s three-day filing period begins April 13.