WASHINGTON — Sen. Jim Inhofe still flies upside down.
To his critics, that may seem an apt description of his worldview and approach to issues.
But to the 78-year-old pilot, it is literal.
“When people say: ‘You're too old to run (for re-election),' my response is always: ‘When I'm too old to fly an airplane upside down, then I'm too old to run.'
“Well last Saturday in Muskogee, I flew an airplane upside down.”
And he's running for re-election.
Though it has been clear Inhofe was planning to seek a fourth full term, he didn't make that official until Wednesday.
Inhofe, R-Tulsa, said he knows that his home state, one of the reddest in the nation, likely would elect a conservative Republican to succeed him if he retired. No Democrat has won a U.S. Senate seat in Oklahoma since David Boren in 1990, and the odds of one doing so in the middle of President Barack Obama's second term are — at best — long.
But Inhofe said in a recent interview that he wants to keep serving at least until his mid-80s because he views himself as something more than just another Republican vote.
“There are some things — it sounds self-serving to say this — that no one's going to do if I'm not here to do them,” he said.
“I'm talking about my three big things: energy, overregulation and the disarming of America that we're going through with this president.”
Unique interest in Africa
It is not the case that other lawmakers in Washington are unwilling to take on some of those issues; the GOP-led House has been churning out legislation for the past two years to aid domestic energy production and also has sought numerous times to limit the Obama administration's rule-making authority.
Plenty also have sounded the alarm about the deep cuts to the military — including Inhofe's colleague, the Oklahoma congressional delegate, Rep. Tom Cole, R-Moore.
But there is little question that Inhofe long ago staked out the opposing viewpoint in Congress to the scientific studies of man-made global warming; that he has challenged every step government officials have tried to take toward regulating hydraulic fracturing; or that he has become an expert on U.S. military missions by flying all over the world to visit bases and personnel.
Inhofe this year became the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Unique is his intense interest in Africa, which he has described at times in a way that makes it sound like Christian missionary work, though at taxpayer expense. He still goes to African countries two or three times a year and says he is forging relationships that serve U.S. humanitarian and national security purposes.
While millions of people first learned last year about African militant Joseph Kony through a YouTube video, Inhofe learned about him in 2005 during a visit to Uganda. Two years ago, Inhofe became embroiled in the controversy after elections in the Ivory Coast.
Inhofe has drawn a Democratic opponent, Tulsa financial planner Matt Silverstein, who raised more than $80,000 in just a few weeks and has described Inhofe as a “belligerent, wasteful spending creature of Washington, D.C.”
“I don't care that Senator Inhofe loves to fly his airplane,” Silverstein said in a recent speech. “I do think before he brags about how he loves to fly upside down, he should probably first focus on landing his airplane on a runway that's actually open.”
Silverstein was referencing a 2010 incident in which Inhofe landed his plane on a runway in south Texas that was marked closed and was under construction. Inhofe, who repeatedly denied fault in the incident, had to take remedial training to avoid legal action from the Federal Aviation Administration.
Inhofe turned that incident into a legislative victory; he authored a bill to give pilots more rights in disputes with the FAA. And he persuaded Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid to get the bill through the Senate.
Close to Democrats
For all of his harsh criticism of Democrats, Inhofe speaks positively of the relationships he has with senators of the party. He said he was close to the late Sen. Edward Kennedy; and he and Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., disagree on most everything — particularly global warming — but have a friendship that transcends those disputes. He called former Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton “very easy to get along with.”
Inhofe sometimes has strong disagreements with those in Congress associated with the tea party.
He has fought them on funding for highways and water projects — which he supports — and, recently on aid to Egypt — which he also supports.
But he said he wasn't worried about the tea party or other conservative groups looking for a candidate to challenge him the Republican primary.
“They would have to be to the right of me, and I don't think there is anyone out there,” he said.