Coburn’s Senate Seat: What’s Next

Photograph by Jay Mallin/Bloomberg

Senator Tom Coburn, a Republican from Oklahoma, walks to the floor of the Senate at the U.S. Capitol.

A special election to replace Oklahoma Republican Sen. Tom Coburn, who’s resigning at the end of the current 113th Congress, will be held this year to coincide with regularly scheduled elections.

That means a candidate qualifying period from April 9-11, the primary on June 24 and a potential runoff on Aug. 26 before the Nov. 4 general election. It’s the same schedule that applies to Oklahoma’s other senator, Republican Jim Inhofe, who’s seeking another full six-year term this year.

Though Coburn, who was last re-elected in 2010, won’t actually vacate his seat until around the end of the year, Oklahoma law treats a pending resignation as a vacancy.

Under §26-12-119, Republican Gov. Mary Fallin can set a special election date once she receives a letter of “irrevocable resignation” from Coburn that “states that the resignation will not become effective immediately, but rather will become effective on some date certain.”

Another part of the state election code, §26-12-103, says that “should such a vacancy occur in an even-numbered year” (and Coburn’s presumably will), Fallin must set an election schedule with dates “that are the same as are required by law for the regular filing period, Primary Election, Runoff Primary Election and General Election, if practicable.” A statement from Fallin’s office today confirms a special election schedule this year.

The Oklahoma law treating a pending resignation as a vacancy dates to 1994, when Democratic Sen. David Boren announced in the spring that he would resign that November to become president of the University of Oklahoma.

As the Tulsa World reported in May 1994, Oklahoma law then said “an election for Boren’s replacement cannot be called until Boren actually resigns.” That would have meant a special election in early 1995, a contest that would have had low turnout and also required the state to bear the costs of running an unusually scheduled election.

So Boren, a former Oklahoma governor, broached the possibility that the legislature change the law to treat his pending resignation as a vacancy, thereby allowing the scheduling of a special election to coincide with the regular election day in November 1994.

“Not only would that give Boren’s successor a leg up on Senate seniority, it would save the state several million dollars needed for a special election,” the Tulsa World reported at the time.

The legislature did so. (Oklahoma legislators revised the vacancy statute in late 2001, when it accommodated a resignation by Republican Rep. Steve Largent as he prepared to run for governor in 2002.)

Inhofe, a sitting House member in 1994, won the special Senate election on Election Day, Nov. 8. Boren resigned Nov. 15 as planned. Inhofe resigned his House seat the same day and was sworn in to the Senate Nov. 17, giving him about seven weeks more seniority than other senators first elected the same day as Inhofe. (Unlike most states, Oklahoma doesn’t allow the governor to make interim appointments to the Senate.)

Inhofe won full six-year terms in 1996, 2002 and 2008, and is up for re-election again this year, when he’ll share the November ballot with the Republican nominee for the seat Coburn is vacating. There’s already plenty of speculation about who might run.

Oklahoma is so strongly Republican — it was the most Republican state in the 2008 presidential election and the third-most Republican state in 2012 — that both Republicans probably will win in November.

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