Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Insiders Panel on Inhofe: some uncertainty over his reelection plans


As announced last month, I have put together a MuskogeePolitico.com Insiders Panel to discuss certain aspects of 2020 Oklahoma politics with people "in the know". The anonymity of the panel is designed to allow them to more freely express their thoughts, giving an inside look at some behind the scenes moves and trends across the state.

The first topic that the Insiders Panel discussed was the 5th Congressional District campaign (here and here). This round, we took up the matter of U.S. Senator Jim Inhofe and his reelection bid in 2020.

In the course of blogging and contacts throughout the political world in Oklahoma, I have received numerous rumors, both inside and outside the State Capitol, that U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe may opt at the last minute to not seek re-election. Most of these rumors speculate that U.S. Rep. Markwayne Mullin is the “hand-picked” successor and will file at the last minute in Inhofe’s stead. Connected to these rumors are numerous individuals (some currently elected, some not) making plans to file for several different offices if that comes to pass. Other rumors involve Tulsa mayor G.T. Bynum and 1st District Congressman Kevin Hern as being interested in a Senate bid, with House Speaker Charles McCall named as a potential last-minute 2nd District candidate. State Sen. Joseph Silk is already running for Mullin's Congressional seat.

A commonly expressed thought in these rumors is that Inhofe, due to his age (he's 85) and perhaps his wife’s health, will wait until the final days/moments to announce his plans out of respect for the 5th District GOP primary, as a public announcement before that time could suck money into a safe Senate race that would otherwise go toward flipping the 5th District back to the GOP column.

After giving the above background, I posed these questions to the members of the Muskogee Politico Insiders Panel.
  1. What percentage would you place on Jim Inhofe running for re-election for a fifth full term?
  2. If the aforementioned scenario comes to pass, with Inhofe not seeking re-election, who do you think would jump into a Senate race on the GOP side?
  3. Would the Democrats try to put a strong candidate into the race, and if so, who?
Let's dive in to the commentary.

1. What percentage would you place on Jim Inhofe running for re-election for a fifth full term?

One political consultant said "I think the chances are 50/50 only because the chatter about him retiring and waiting to announce last minute came out in 2017 and has been reverberating just as loudly from my D.C. friends as from inside Oklahoma," before mentioning that he thinks Inhofe isn't sure yet, but that he could also see him serving out the remainder of his life in the Senate "like John McCain and Robert Byrd."

Two prominent OKC-metro insiders both put the odds of Inhofe running in 2020 at 60%. A panelist from the eastern side of the state also put 60% on Inhofe going for a fifth full term, noting that Inhofe could then potentially "go down in history in Oklahoma to pass Fred Harris" and become Oklahoma's oldest living senator.

One of the elected officials on the panel said "I think he’s in, and I’d put it at 90% actually. I think he’s still got some fight left. The DC routine keeps him fit, I think he knows that, and he needs it."

A former elected official dismissed these particular rumors. "I don't see Inhofe not running this next term. I see him possibly stepping down midterm and having [Governor Stitt] appoint a replacement. That would allow them to be the incumbent before they are on the ballot. It also allows Inhofe to have more control over who follows him."

Another insider raised the idea that Inhofe might resign in early 2020, "which will trigger the Governor to have the ability to appoint whomever to that role to serve until April and then that person will run as the named incumbent."

A recent NRSC ad received mention, purportedly missing Inhofe among the list of incumbent Republican Senators seeking reelection. Additionally, some mentioned that Inhofe does not appear to have begun building a field staff and campaign team as he historically does by this point.


2. If the aforementioned scenario comes to pass, with Inhofe not seeking re-election, who do you think would jump into a Senate race on the GOP side?

A Tulsa panelist sees potential for a northeastern boxing match. "Markwayne Mullin would be in, no question about it. GT Bynum also most certainly would be in. Would be fascinating to see those two young Republicans — who are very different — in a debate. I would pay money to watch that."

A GOP activist from Oklahoma County marked Governor Stitt and LtGov Pinnell off the list of potential candidates. They continued: "I could see [Congressmen Hern and Mullin] running, and each can self-finance. Mullin has more name recognition as he owns Mullin Plumbing, which most know belongs to him. Hern owns several McDonald's restaurants in Oklahoma, but his name is not associated with the franchise."

They continued: "The two large city Mayors have always desired higher office so GT Bynum (Tulsa) and David Holt (OKC) could jump in. Neither can self finance to the limits of Hern and Mullin, though, and both mayors have instituted policies that many consider to be liberal, which would hurt them in a statewide primary. I do not see Mayor Bynum and Congressman Hern running against each other.  There could be also be a scenario where TW Shannon jumps in and Mullin stays out as the 'Tribal' candidate." They noted that if any sitting congressman jumped in, it would trigger a "flood gate" of other candidates for other offices, and that "I am buying stock in popcorn as there will be a lot to sit back at watch!"

A 4th District member also sees the 1st and 2nd District congressmen as most likely to run: "If Inhofe were to bow out, I would suspect that both Hern and Mullin would jump in."

A younger panelist thinks Governor Stitt is itching for the seat. "I believe that in fact, Governor Kevin Stitt is trying to build a resume to run in the US Senate race. For the following reasons: 1) The governor recently has been spending many unofficial trips in the swamp and also coupling it with a few committee meetings in association with his official capacity; 2) It appears that the Governor is trying to force having several major political wins some of which appear to be forced and very desperate and not fully thought through; 3) Many of the governor's current staff members are in fact alums from the Inhofe team, many of which serve in key political staff roles." They also mentioned Mullin, Hern, former LtGov Todd Lamb, and OKWU President Everett Piper.

One of the Tulsa insiders put it this way:
  • Kevin Hern – 75%. Considering we’re talking about rumors.  I’ve never heard Mullin’s name as Inhofe’s choice.  It makes more sense that Kevin Hern is Inhofe’s pick, which is who I’ve heard attached to the rumor of Inhofe resigning.
  • Mullin – 100%. Mullin wants the Senate seat for sure and I believe his consultants are just as eager so they can have two millionaires running in 2020.  (Mullin, plus McCall in the 2nd District)." 
  • Bridenstine - 75%. I believe ensuring Bridenstine won’t run is one of the key reasons for Inhofe being coy about his intentions until last minute."
  • GT Bynum - less than 1%. Bynum couldn’t survive a primary.  He has too many liberal policies that he’s pushed as Mayor of Tulsa and would be eaten alive in a primary.  I believe GT knows that and won’t waste his time on a losing venture.
  • Todd Lamb – 10%. I imagine Lankford or Cole will interject a candidate of their liking that they can influence for the Senate seat.  Todd Lamb could be that candidate - high name recognition, conservative credentials, and large fundraising base.  If not Lamb, I fully expect an OKC metro candidate of some merit getting in the race.
  • *Bonus Dark Horse* ... Kevin Stitt – 10%. When the rumors of Stitt running began to swirl back in 2017, the scuttlebutt was his run for Governor was just to get name recognition and run for CD1 in 2020 when Hern ran for Senate. (Obviously he did better than he initially planned!)  On that rumor and that alone, I’m including Stitt in the mix.  He’s in the middle of his term so he’s not at risk of having to give up his office, he’s expressed federal ambitions before, he’s the current Governor, and this is probably his best time in the next 20 years at a Senate seat if he wants it.

3. Would the Democrats try to put a strong candidate into the race, and if so, who?

One Tulsa-area insider said "Only if they can convince Dan Boren to run and I put that at near zero," while adding to "expect a sacrificial lamb" like former state senator Kenneth Corn or former state representative Scott Inman to run. Another Tulsa activist mentioned Dan Boren as the Democrats' "best shot," adding that "they need someone who can pull conservative rural Democrats again."

A panelist from the southern part of the state said, "One name that everyone talks about is Dan Boren; I can assure you he will not be running." They went on to mention Anastasia Pittman and Joe Dorman as possibilities, but concluded by saying that "the Democrat bench is pretty short right now."

One of the Oklahoma City members said "I do not see the Dems having a strong candidate to run unless Brad Henry decides to come out of retirement."


Additional Comments

A consultant disagreed with rumors that Inhofe is keeping quiet to help the CD5 GOP primary. "First, let me respond to this reasoning for Inhofe’s late announcement is complete hogwash.  While Inhofe has a stellar conservative voting record, he has a more ruthless side when it comes to elections.  Inhofe thrives on being a kingmaker and it’s an open secret how he worked behind the scenes to stop Jim Bridenstine’s 2010 run for Congress against a very vulnerable Sullivan. If Inhofe does announce his retirement days before filing, it won’t be because he wants to protect the 5th District, but because he wants to make sure his candidate doesn’t have stiff opposition."

One of the longtime party insiders said "I have not heard any serious rumors about Senator Inhofe not running for reelection. There is however a lot of chatter about his age, his wife's health and the fact that he has not hired a campaign team yet." They pointed to some of Inhofe's fundraising statistics, noting that Inhofe had over $2 million on hand at the end of September 2019, with $100k coming from a September 30th fundraiser."


Well, that's all for now from the Muskogee Politico Insiders Panel. I'd like to thank the members for their continued participation as we discuss various issues dealing with Oklahoma politics.

We'll know for sure what Senator Inhofe has up his sleeve in a few months. Until then, we'll try to keep up with the latest on that front.

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