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Sen. James M. Inhofe, conservative critic of climate change, says he will retire

Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) speaks to reporters at the U.S. Capitol on Dec. 6, 2021. (Al Drago for The Washington Post)

Republican Sen. James M. Inhofe, a conservative crusader who has represented Oklahoma over five decades in Congress, while earning a reputation as a leading denier of climate change, said Friday that he will not finish his term and will retire at the end of the year.

Inhofe, 87, confirmed the news Friday in an interview with the Oklahoman and in a subsequent written statement. The New York Times first reported Inhofe’s impending retirement Thursday.

“There has to be one day where you say, ‘All right, this is going to be it,’ ” Inhofe told the newspaper.

In the statement, Inhofe said the decision was “bittersweet, but [made] with a clear heart,” adding that it was “now time for that next generation of Oklahomans to have the opportunity to serve the state in the U.S. Senate.”

Inhofe’s decision to step down only two years into a six-year term sets up a sudden political scramble in the Sooner State that is likely to attract some of Oklahoma’s most prominent Republicans. Even before Inhofe confirmed the news Friday, his top Senate aide, chief of staff Luke Holland, unveiled a campaign website.

“Luke is proud to have the endorsement of Senator Inhofe,” it reads. Inhofe confirmed in the Oklahoman interview that he would campaign for Holland ahead of a June 28 primary.

Inhofe, who won reelection with 63 percent of the vote in 2020, had previously signaled that his current six-year term would be his last. But he has indicated to allies in recent months that he has been considering an early retirement because of his wife’s declining health.

Inhofe’s seat would be heavily favored to stay in Republican hands. No Democrat has won major statewide office since 2006, and then-President Donald Trump carried the state with 65 percent of the vote in 2020.

A former state legislator, Tulsa mayor and four-term U.S. House member, Inhofe was first elected to the Senate in the 1994 Republican wave, succeeding veteran Democrat David Boren.

In a statement paying tribute to Inhofe, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said “the fruits of Jim’s labors are recognizable across Oklahoma and across the country,” citing his support for transportation infrastructure and the energy industry, as well as his impacts on the military as the Republican leader of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

“As a sportsman, a small business owner, and a former mayor, he brought a keen understanding of the challenges facing his neighbors,” McConnell said.

Hailing from a state where oil and gas production is an economic keystone, Inhofe has long been an eager and willing foe of environmentalists who have called for a global shift to renewable energy to combat climate change. For years in the early 2000s, he used the chairmanship of the Senate Environment and Public Works committee to promote his views.

In 2012, Inhofe published a book, “The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future,” attacking those calling for an end to fossil fuels. He gained national attention in 2015 for tossing a snowball on the Senate floor during a frigid day in Washington, calling it further proof of his climate views, which are at direct odds with mainstream climate science.

While those views made him a boogeyman for liberals, he has also been willing to cut deals with Democrats — including a 2016 rewrite of the federal law regulating toxic chemicals that he negotiated with Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), one of the Senate’s most outspoken liberals. Serving as Armed Services Committee chairman during much of the Trump administration, he negotiated yearly defense bills with Democrats.

In a surprising testimonial Friday, one of the Senate’s most liberal and vocal advocates for tackling climate change wished Inhofe well.

“Jim Inhofe was perhaps my worst foe on climate change issues, yet a key ally on my oceans and infrastructure measures,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.). “When he’s decided to push for something, he’s had an astounding ability to get it done.”

Inhofe’s retirement is likely to set off a hard-fought scramble for the GOP nomination, with Gov. Kevin Stitt a potential front-running candidate.

Besides Holland, other possible candidates include Reps. Markwayne Mullin and Kevin Hern, former state House speaker T.W. Shannon and Lt. Gov. Matt Pinnell.

Inhofe’s retirement could also prompt musical chairs in the Senate by opening up the top GOP slot on the Armed Services Committee. Sen. Roger Wicker (Miss.), the current Commerce Committee chairman, is the next-most senior Republican on that panel. Should Wicker give up the top Commerce post, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) would be in line to succeed him — and perhaps hold a congressional gavel for the first time if Republicans regain the Senate majority in November.