Inhofe confirms he’ll resign in January, backs aide for Oklahoma seat

87-year-old Oklahoma Republican was last reelected in 2020

Sen. James M. Inhofe, R-Okla., plans to retire before his term ends, he told The Oklahoman newspaper. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Sen. James M. Inhofe, R-Okla., plans to retire before his term ends, he told The Oklahoman newspaper. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted February 25, 2022 at 10:05am, Updated at 2:05pm

Oklahoma Sen. James M. Inhofe said Friday he would resign from the Senate next year, prompting a scramble to fill the seat in a solidly red state ahead of a June 28 primary. 

Inhofe, 87, made the announcement to supporters in the Oklahoma History Center by phone because he has a mild case of COVID-19. The phone was in front of a microphone on a lectern as his chief of staff — whom the senator wants to be his successor — stood by. 

“I will be leaving the United States Senate on the third of January,” Inhofe said. “Nothing is going to change, as far as I’m concerned, until almost a year from now.”

Inhofe said he and his wife, Kay, were moving on to other things.

“My wife and I have been doing this for a long period of time and we have some other things we need to be doing at this point in our lives,” he said. “To do that, we have to get out of this position and join the ranks of all the rest of you who are out there making a living.”

Inhofe endorsed Luke Holland, his chief of staff, saying he was a “good friend” and “a very, very knowledgeable person who’s been really kind of running our office for a long time.” 

Spokespeople for Oklahoma Reps. Markwayne Mullin and Kevin Hern didn’t respond Friday to questions about whether they would run to replace Inhofe. 

Rep. Frank D. Lucas said in a statement that he would not run for the seat, saying that “it’s critically important to be the most senior Republican on the House Agriculture Committee when the House debates and writes the 2023 Farm Bill,” and that he could chair the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee next year if Republicans win control of the House.

Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales reported other potential candidates included Lt. Gov. Matt Pinnell, former state House Speaker T.W. Shannon, former U.S. Attorney Trent Shores and attorney general candidate Gentner Drummond. Democrats mentioned included former Rep. Kendra Horn, who posted an eyeballs emoji on Twitter Thursday night, along with former state Attorney General Drew Edmonson and Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister. Gonzales rated the race Solid Republican.

Inhofe's plans were first reported by a New York Times reporter on Twitter on Thursday. The senator confirmed his decision in an interview with The Oklahoman newspaper.

Inhofe won a fifth term in 2020, and his resignation will mean a second Senate race this year in the Sooner State, where Republican Sen. James Lankford is also up for reelection.

First elected in 1994, Inhofe served as chair of the Armed Services Committee after the 2018 death of then-Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz. Now the top-ranking Republican on the panel, Inhofe enjoys a strong friendship with the committee’s chairman, Rhode Island Democrat Jack Reed. Both are Army veterans.

“He’s a gentleman, and he’s someone who is very sincere in all he does,” Reed said of Inhofe in 2019. “We have a relationship in which we might disagree, but we keep everybody — each other, I should say — informed of where we are.”

Likewise, as a long-serving member of the Environment and Public Works Committee, Inhofe had a kinship with former Sen. Barbara Boxer of California, with whom he worked — and often disagreed — over many years when she was the committee’s top Democrat.

“We are total opposites,” Inhofe once said of himself and Boxer, “but we have a genuine love for each other.”

Focus on China

Despite the flashes of occasional agreement with Democrats, Inhofe is mostly a die-hard conservative. He has repeatedly urged, for example, that the national defense budget grow as much as possible. And he is known for bringing to nearly every Armed Services Committee hearing for the last several years a 2018 report by a bipartisan commission of experts chartered by Congress to review the Trump administration’s defense strategy.

Inhofe argues that a growing military threat from China animates his desire to see defense spending grow. He has tirelessly called attention to advances by China on systems such as hypersonic missiles and artificial intelligence.

When Washington enacted caps on defense and nondefense spending from fiscal 2012 through fiscal 2021, Inhofe decried the limits on defense spending as destructive of America’s security, though the drawing down of U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan was the primary reason for a decline in defense spending during those years.

In 2021, Inhofe was an outspoken critic of President Joe Biden’s defense policies, nowhere more loudly than on the withdrawal of U.S. troops and civilians from Afghanistan.

Inhofe also assailed Biden’s proposed requirements for vaccinating U.S. troops, Defense Department civilians and contractors against the coronavirus. In October 2021, Inhofe wrote Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III and urged him to halt the vaccine mandates until more information was available about the effect on readiness if thousands of troops left the service or were forced out for declining the shots.

Inhofe told Austin the mandates “must be immediately suspended or risk irrevocable damage to our national security.”

When Donald Trump was president, Inhofe was one of his most gung-ho supporters in general, and on defense matters in particular. The senator supported Trump’s decision to move the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and Trump’s negotiations with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.

Inhofe had long criticized Democrats for backing “calendar-based” withdrawals from Iraq. But the senator commended Trump in 2020 for agreeing with the Taliban to reduce the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan and remove all U.S. forces by May 2021 as long as the Taliban honored its commitments.

In July 2020, Inhofe vowed to excise from the final fiscal 2021 defense authorization bill a provision requiring the military to expunge homages to the Confederacy from its installations. He made the promise to Trump himself in a phone call, audio of which was later leaked to the New York Times. But Inhofe was not able to fulfill that promise, as the provisions remained when Congress overrode Trump’s veto of the final bill.

Inhofe cheered Trump’s proposed increases in defense spending, which Congress largely backed. He also shepherded a provision in the fiscal 2021 defense authorization to strengthen the Pentagon’s influence over budgets for nuclear weapons programs at the Energy Department’s National Nuclear Security Administration.

Inhofe also has an abiding interest in Africa. He has traveled there often, backed U.S. military engagement on the continent and warned of growing Chinese influence over governments there.

John M. Donnelly and Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.