(Update: This article and its headline were updated at 12:20 p.m. Friday, Feb. 25, to reflect the official announcement that Sen. Jim Inhofe will retire Jan. 3, 2023. The article had been updated multiple times the day prior.)
U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe announced Friday that he will be retiring effective Jan. 3, 2023, and he endorsed his chief of staff, Luke Holland, to succeed him. Because Inhofe announced his retirement before March 1, a state statute amended by lawmakers last year lays out how a successor to the state’s senior senator will be chosen in a concurrent special election this year.
Gov. Kevin Stitt signed SB 959 last year to amend the rules for how Oklahomans would select a new U.S. senator in the instance of a vacancy or “irrevocable resignation.” In the bill, lawmakers specified that a senator’s declaration of retirement before March 1 of an even-numbered year would allow for a concurrent special election on that same year’s electoral schedule.
The amended version of Title 26, Section 12-101 states:
If a vacancy occurs in an even-numbered year on or before March 1, then the special election, if necessary, shall be held that same year in the manner provided in paragraph 1 of this subsection. However, if the vacancy occurs after March 1 in an even-numbered year, then the special election shall be held at the next subsequent regularly scheduled statewide regular primary, runoff primary and general elections.
That made Tuesday, March 1, the final day for Inhofe to announce his resignation if he wanted to trigger a concurrent special election this year to select his replacement. Had Inhofe announced his resignation after Tuesday, the subsequent special election would not have occurred until 2024.
With Inhofe retiring, Title 51, Section 10 specifies that Stitt would have 30 days to appoint an interim U.S. senator who would sign an oath promising not to run for election to the position. But the Title 26 law was amended in 2021 to allow for a U.S. senator to declare their “irrevocable resignation” for a future date.
“An irrevocable resignation shall occur when a member of the United States Senate from Oklahoma provides a written letter of resignation to the Secretary of State as provided in Section 12-119 of this title that serves notice of the Senate member’s resignation on a date certain,” the law states.
Since Inhofe said he will remain in office through Jan. 3, no interim senator will be needed.
“Nothing is going to change as far as I’m concerned until almost a year from now,” Inhofe said by phone during a press conference at the Oklahoma History Center. “We are going to continue doing the work that we have been doing, and it has worked out very well.”
Inhofe appeared by phone because he has contracted COVID-19, Holland said.
Inhofe currently seventh most senior senator
Now 87 years old, Inhofe (R-OK) was reelected to his fifth six-year term in the U.S. Senate in November 2020. Concerns about his health and the health of his wife, Kay, may have been a factor in the influential senator’s decision to retire.
First elected to the U.S. Senate in 1994, following David Boren’s decision to become president of the University of Oklahoma, Inhofe is currently the seventh most senior member of the upper congressional chamber, behind only Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), Sen. Diane Feinstein, (D-CA) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA).
Inhofe has been a staunch conservative in the U.S. Senate, brashly defending and advocating for the state’s oil and gas industry and famously bringing a snowball onto the Senate floor as a theatrical prop in his argument against the existence of climate change. His position on the Senate Armed Forces Committee allowed him to bring significant military funding to the state and has helped the state avoid losing military bases during closure considerations.
Inhofe angered some supporters of former President Donald Trump when he voted to certify 2020 election results and seat President Joe Biden. Inhofe said Republican colleagues promoting theories that Biden won the election fraudulently were wrong.
“(Other Republicans) are trying to say that there’s so much fraud in the election, and it just wasn’t true,” Inhofe said. “But even (Trump’s) own attorney general, (William) Barr (…) said no, there was theft, and there’s corruption in every election, but not to the level that would have changed the outcome.”
Still, Inhofe strongly supported Trump’s reelection effort in 2020. During his own campaign that year, Inhofe told NonDoc that he decided to run for another term after taking stock of the political landscape.
“The Democratic Party is different than it has been in the past,” he said. “They’ve always been leaning toward socialism, but not as overtly as they are now. Democrats and Republicans have different philosophies. I understand that. But never to this extreme. So we were looking at it and thinking, ‘We really need to make sure these guys don’t get control.’”
Background on Jim Inhofe’s political career
Inhofe has held a variety of public offices in Oklahoma. First elected in 1966, Inhofe began his career with a single term in the Oklahoma House of Representatives before jumping to the Oklahoma State Senate, where he served from 1969 through 1977. In 1974, he was the Republican nominee for governor, losing to Boren 64 percent to 36 percent.
Tulsa voters elected Inhofe mayor in 1978. He served three terms. In 1986, he was elected to the first of four terms representing Oklahoma’s 1st Congressional District.
When Boren left the U.S. Senate in 1994, Inhofe won the special election and subsequently was elected to five full terms in 1996, 2002, 2008, 2014 and 2020.
The dominoes that could fall
With Inhofe announcing his retirement before March 1 to require a concurrent special election for the 2022 cycle, a series of political dominoes will likely tip over for this year’s other elections.
Stitt himself has been rumored to have Washington aspirations, although he is significantly invested in his current 2022 gubernatorial reelection campaign. Still, the governor would be term-limited for his current position in 2026, and U.S. senators face no term limits.
Potential U.S. Senate candidates in what could be a crowded field include:
- Luke Holland: After nearly 13 years on Inhofe’s staff, Holland launched his campaign to succeed his boss early Friday, Feb. 25. Holland, 35, has served as the senator’s chief of staff since February 2017. Prior to working for Inhofe, Holland worked as an intern for Tyson Foods. He is a graduate of the University of Arkansas. Inhofe endorsed Holland as “the one who is qualified to do it, and he is the one that I have no doubt in my mind can win.”
- Scott Pruitt: The 53-year-old Pruitt was briefly head of the Environmental Protection Agency during the early days of the Trump administration. Pruitt eventually resigned in the wake of allegations of lavish spending that included a security detail and a secure phone booth in his office, as well as potential conflicts of interest. Pruitt was Oklahoma’s attorney general from 2011 and 2017 and had previously served in the State Senate. Since his resignation, Pruitt has kept a low profile. In 2019, the Indianapolis Star reported that Pruitt had registered as a lobbyist in Indiana;
- U.S. Rep. Markwayne Mullin: Mullin, 44, currently represents Oklahoma’s 2nd Congressional District. He was first elected in 2012. Voters have sent him back to Washington three more times, most recently in 2020 when he won 75 percent of the vote. Mullin operates a plumbing company and has several other business interests. Mullin was among more than 100 GOP representatives who contested the 2020 election, and in 2021 he allegedly clashed with U.S. Embassy staff in Tajikistan in a bizarre effort to enter Afghanistan and rescue civilians during the U.S. withdrawal in 2021;
- U.S. Rep. Kevin Hern: First elected in 2018, Hern, 60, currently represents Oklahoma’s 1st Congressional District, which encompasses much of Tulsa. Hern replaced Jim Bridenstine, who stepped down to head NASA during the Trump administration. Hern is an Arkansas native who entered the business world as a McDonald’s franchise owner, later expanding to 18 restaurants. Hern’s businesses received between an estimated $1 to $2 million in COVID-19 relief funds. He was among more than 100 GOP representatives who contested the 2020 presidential election. In 2021, Hern was one of just 16 Republicans who voted against a bipartisan bill that would have granted visas for Afghan citizens who had worked with the United States during its war there;
- State Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat: Treat (R-OKC) was reelected to his final legislative term in 2020 and formerly worked for then-U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn. His wife, Maressa, previously worked for U.S. Sen. James Lankford. Treat has led the State Senate since 2019 and was recently re-designated as president pro tempore for the 2023 session. For this legislative session, Treat has filed and is pushing legislation on a pair of conservative priorities: school choice and abortion restriction;
- Gentner Drummond: A 58-year-old attorney, banker and businessman, Drummond is currently running to unseat Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor, whom Stitt appointed in July. Drummond ran for attorney general in 2018, narrowly losing in a GOP primary to Mike Hunter, who resigned unexpectedly in May 2021. Like Treat, Drummond also has experience working for a U.S. senator: David Boren in the early 1990s. Drummond has long been rumored to have senatorial aspirations, and an opening in 2022 while he is already a declared statewide candidate could be too tempting for him to pass up;
- T.W. Shannon: A former speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives, Shannon ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in 2014, losing to Lankford in the Republican primary. Shannon, 44, is a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation and works as CEO of Chickasaw Community Bank. He currently serves on the Oklahoma Transportation Commission representing District 3 and has clashed with the Stitt administration over a decision to change how planned highway projects involving tribal partnerships are considered. During his time in the Oklahoma Legislature, Shannon represented a Lawton district;
- Kendra Horn: Oklahoma’s most recent Democrat in Congress, Horn served the state’s 5th Congressional District for one term after ousting incumbent Rep. Steve Russell in 2018. Horn failed to win reelection in 2020, however, and lost to Rep. Stephanie Bice. Still, Horn is arguably the most prominent Democrat in Oklahoma, and she tweeted a single pair of eyeballs shortly after a journalist tweeted about Inhofe’s potential retirement.