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Inside the Sudden Sooner State Senate Special Election 

As if enough wasn’t going on.

WEST HOLLYWOOD—I remember the first time I heard of Jim Inhofe. Carted in by my high school principal (who was ever tediously auditioning to be secretary of Education), the Oklahoma senator and then-ranking member of the upper chamber’s environment committee had reportedly gotten into it with the real brains of my Northern Virginia science magnet. Your author was no Intel Science Fair finalist, worry not—so I wasn’t there.

But the senator’s tussles with climate-believing millennials got around.

“You’re some of these climate people? You’re one of these climate people?” he was said to have peppered his audience, the kind of 18-year-olds who had just used their first votes to propel Barack Obama to power. I wonder how he thinks the next 13 years have gone in this country.

But exaggeration or not, it would prove prescient stuff as the senator got on in both years and years on the Hill. In the lo-fi days before Donald Trump, Senator Inhofe may as well have been as exciting as it got in Washington (or that’s how I remember it now).

“In case we have forgotten because we keep hearing that 2014 has been the warmest year on record,” said a snowball-wielding Inhofe in primaveral 2015, “I asked the chair, do you know what this is? It’s a snowball just from outside here. So it’s very, very cold out. Very unseasonable.”

“Catch this.”

Well, come 2023, we won’t have Jim Inhofe to kick around anymore—or, if you’re a helpless intern, you’ll be spared a senator who might wing you with an icy slider in that chamber of democracy that so separates us from the criminals in the Kremlin. The 87-year-old is older than the ayatollah, so unlike most American octogarchs, he’s hanging it up.

Out here in the Golden State, our senior senator is even older, really representing California’s nickname back East, but Senator Feinstein (who was mayor of San Francisco under President Carter) just lost a husband and had her Senate office occupied by a Harvard-educated, psilocybin-nourished maniac, who staged a sort of THC Tet Offensive…so let’s let her and La La Land off the hook.

Pulling a reverse Steinbeck, I turn my eyes to those still in the Sooner State. The race to (quickly) succeed the good senator is off in earnest. It may not be Iowa nice, or Ohio mean, but one senator counts as much as any other. Ask Joe Biden. Or Julius Caesar.

First up is the potential front-runner, if he plays his cards right. Alex Gray, who frequently shares a byline with (and was last seen working for) former National Security Advisor Robert C. O’Brien, is in the race. Gray presumably covets the endorsement of the man once a little further up the chain, and as he emphasized in his announcement, “I was honored to serve President Trump every day of his presidency in the White House.”

No word yet if Gray’s backslap is going to be reciprocated, but it’s worth noting that, in smaller red states, Trump has demonstrated a clear ability to shut down a race—especially for alumni of his administration. Consider the success of Sarah Huckabee Sanders in neighboring Arkansas. For officials of the last White House, it is apparently a close call whether to run for higher office or write a tell-all (former Vice President Mike Pence might be on his way to trying both). Gray appears to also have the support of conservative pundit and columnist Hugh Hewitt, who was an early booster of a guy called Glenn Youngkin. In divided primaries—perhaps with modest turnout—every little bit counts, and Senator Mike Lee’s early endorsement of Gray on Thursday has parallels to Senator Ted Cruz’s odd but plainly effective campaigning for Youngkin in the OId Dominion.

Next up is the old runner-up, T.W. Shannon, the former state speaker.

Shannon blew a race to future Senator James Lankford back in 2014, losing by nearly 20 points in the primary. But he’s back, officially entering the race on Thursday. No longer clean-shaven, Shannon (aged 44) is sporting X-ennial hipster frames and an even-edgier, mutton-chopped beard. In recent months, he’s been putting out content—“Go Woke, You Go Broke” and “No, Buttigieg, Everyone Shouldn’t Drive a Tesla”—as well as defending his aesthetic sensibilities, “T.W. stands for Turtlenecks Work,” and sounding the alarm, “Twitter CEO says 1st and 2nd Amendments need tweaking.” He should be a fun re-entry to the race, and would be that rare African American Republican senator, and certainly rarer registered member of the Chickasaw Nation.

And State Senator Nathan Dahm is in the game.

At 39, Dahm is also young (everyone in this race…are the property taxes really that good in Oklahoma?). Dahm appears to be a free-market throwback, telling a gathered crowd last fall from his pickup-truck bed (back when he was challenging Lankford), “the sole, main purpose of government is about securing our rights, not trying to find ways to trample on our rights.” It may be as boilerplate as a gingham shirt, but in the age of Covid draconianism, there would be things less stunning than, not a “Libertarian Moment,” but a libertarian tremor.

Dahm has the endorsement of Senator Rand Paul, who polled at a respectable 3 percent for president at CPAC last month (which was good for anyone not named “Trump,” “DeSantis,” or “Trump, Jr.”) It is a reminder of the residual Libertarian, Inc., infrastructure that can turn a race in this country. And with statements like this—“You know, I’ve been standing up against the mandates of Dr. Fauci, but I need your help. That’s why I’m endorsing Nathan Dahm for Senate.… I know Nathan Dahm will join me in demanding that Fauci is immediately fired and removed from office”—it is a sure sign that Republicans are going to target Anthony Fauci in the coming years like they did Benghazi. (Fauci did something more far-reaching).

Filling out the ranks is Congressman Markwayne Mullin, who has a great name, something you can’t discount when Arkansas finally produced a Southern senator named “Cotton.”

Least known is Luke Holland, Inhofe’s chief of staff and favored choice. Does it even snow in Oklahoma?

about the author

Curt Mills is a contributing editor at The American Conservative, where he previously served as senior reporter. He specializes in foreign policy and campaign coverage and has worked at The National Interest, U.S. News and World Report, Washington Examiner, and the Spectator, and his work has appeared in UnHerd and Newsweek. He was a 2018-2019 Robert Novak Journalism fellow.

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