Oklahoma Senate Special Challenged

By Jim Ellis

Veteran Oklahoma Sen. Jim Inhofe (R)

March 10, 2022 — The lawyer who defended 1995 Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, the perpetrator who was later executed in 2001, has petitioned the Oklahoma Supreme Court challenging the state’s new special election law.

Last year, the Oklahoma legislature passed a bill that now allows US Sen. Jim Inhofe (in this case) to irrevocably declare that he would resign his position at the end of the year in order to conduct a concurrent special election to coincide with the current election calendar. Gov. Kevin Stitt (R) signed the bill into law.

Attorney Stephen Jones, himself a former US Senate candidate — he challenged then-Sen. David Boren in the 1990 Democratic primary and attracted just 17 percent of the vote — filed his challenge late Monday, and asked the high court to freeze the current Senate candidate filing period with respect to the special election. The legal move was made just after Gov. Stitt officially set the special election to run concurrently with the 2022 regular midterm election calendar.

Individuals have until April 15 to file for this year’s elections, and several, US Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-Westville), state Sen. Nathan Dahm (R-Broken Arrow), former National Security Council staff head Alex Gray, and Inhofe former chief of staff Luke Holland, have already announced that they will enter the special Senate election. The Oklahoma primary is June 28. If no candidate receives majority support, the top two finishers advance to an Aug. 23 runoff election.

The legislature passed the bill last year, and Gov. Stitt signed the legislation that created the current system — which is, that if a letter is filed with the proper state authorities prior to March 1 of an even-numbered year containing a date certain as to when the office holder will officially resign, the succeeding special election to replace that person can proceed within the regular election calendar even though the person affected remains in office. Sen. Inhofe met those required conditions.

Jones is challenging this law under his argument that the US Constitution, in the 17th Amendment, allows in-cycle special US Senate elections only when a vacancy actually occurs. Jones argues that since Sen. Inhofe remains in office, a special election to replace him cannot occur because a state law cannot supersede the procedures outlined in the Constitution.

Precedent to filling a proposed Senate vacancy has already occurred in the state, however, even without the state’s new succession law being in place. The late Sen. Tom Coburn (R), who was then battling cancer, announced that he would resign his office at the end of 2014, but served until a replacement was selected in the regular election. Then-US Rep. James Lankford (R) subsequently won the 2014 special Senate election but did not take office until the new Congress was called to order in 2015, just after Sen. Coburn left office. Sen. Lankford then won a full term in the 2016 election, and stands for re-election this year.

Jones further argues that the special election process must revert to the Oklahoma system on the books prior to last year’s legal change being enacted. This means the governor could appoint an individual to serve the period of time until the next regular election, in this case concurrent with the 2024 election calendar because Sen. Inhofe would not actually leave office until the beginning of 2023.

The previous Oklahoma law allowed the governor to fill a US Senate vacancy only in an odd-numbered year and the individual selected was ineligible to run for a full term in the succeeding election. If the vacancy occurred in the even-numbered year, the special election would occur within the regular election calendar of that particular year and the seat would remain vacant.

The state Supreme Court will have to address Jones’ complaint. Meanwhile, other individuals are deciding whether to enter the special election contest. Among them are US Rep. Kevin Hern (R-Tulsa), former US Rep. J. C. Watts (R), who served as the 4th District Representative for three terms from 1999-2003, former state House Speaker and ex-US Senate candidate T. W. Shannon, and pastor Jackson Lahmeyer who is currently challenging Sen. Lankford but is indicated he may switch to the special election. Public Relations consultant Mike Workman is the only Democrat so far announcing his Senate candidacy.

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