WASHINGTON—For the second straight January, Senate Republicans have learned that they are losing one of the chamber’s most outspoken conservatives. One year after South Carolina’s Jim DeMint announced he was stepping down to run The Heritage Foundation, Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma has announced he will retire at the end of the 113th Congress—two years short of the end of his second term.
Coburn, a physician, said he made the decision after “much prayer and consideration.”
“Serving as Oklahoma’s senator has been, and continues to be, one of the great privileges and blessings of my life,” he said in a statement.
The 65-year-old politician has been fighting cancer, but he said his decision is not related to his health. He cited his desire to only remain in Congress for a limited time and said, “I can best serve my own children and grandchildren by shifting my focus elsewhere.”
Coburn, who served three terms in the House from 1995 to 2001, is a social conservative known as the Senate’s premiere fiscal hawk who highlights government spending problems in his annual “Wastebook.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., called Coburn “one of the most intelligent, principled, and decent men” in the recent history of the Senate. “And when it comes to the transcendent debate over the size and cost of government, Tom Coburn is simply without peer,” McConnell said in a statement. “No one has done more to awaken Americans to the threat posed by a government that chronically spends more than it takes in, and no one has worked harder at finding a solution.”
Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin, a Republican, has set a primary election for Coburn’s seat on June 24 and a general election for the final two years of his term on Nov. 4—the same day Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., is up for reelection.
Coburn’s retirement is unlikely to change the balance of power in the Senate, since Oklahoma is a mostly conservative state. Three of the leading candidates to replace Coburn are Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, and U.S. Reps. Tom Cole and James Lankford.
Both Lankford and Cole said Friday it is not the appropriate time to comment on the future of Coburn’s Senate seat but spoke highly of his work in the Senate on behalf of their home state.
“In the three years I have served in the House, I looked to Dr. Coburn as the epitome of a citizen legislator,” Lankford said. “He kept his eye on the ball and worked relentlessly to bring sanity to government fiscal policy. His leadership and wise counsel will be missed.”