Despite a history of winning statewide contests and a star turn in the Trump administration, former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt badly lost his bid for a political comeback in his home state on Tuesday, coming in a distant fifth place in the Republican primary to replace retiring Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.).
Pruitt, who resigned from EPA amid cascading scandals in 2018, trailed in polls ahead of the primary, which resulted in a runoff between U.S. Rep. Markwayne Mullin and former state lawmaker T.W. Shannon.
But that Pruitt failed to net more than a single-digit percentage of the primary ballots was a rather stunning fall for a candidate who previously won statewide office and enjoyed more national media coverage than most other contenders in the race.
Pruitt won election twice as Oklahoma’s attorney general. From that post, he cultivated close ties with the state’s powerful oil and gas industry, and ultimately gained a national profile for leading a lawsuit against the Obama administration’s signature climate regulation. At EPA, Pruitt fashioned himself as the Trump administration’s deregulatory shock trooper, gutting the agency’s career staff and championing radical changes to how public health rules are written.
He benefited from “much greater interest in Pruitt from national media than anyone in Oklahoma ever had,” said Pat McFerron, a prominent Republican strategist in the Sooner State.
But earned media only got him so far, and Pruitt entered the race late against “very popular figures already committed and active in the contest before he threw his hat into the ring,” McFerron said.
Charles Finocchiaro, an associate professor of political science at the University of Oklahoma, said Mullin emerged as the clear frontrunner in a crowded field, which meant the “opposition likely had to align around one alternative and someone polling as low as Pruitt had been is probably not a good strategic choice in that sense.”
Pruitt also has been gone from Oklahoma for six years. In 2014, he ran for attorney general unopposed, so he had not been on the ballot since 2010.
“That is a lifetime in a changing state like Oklahoma,” McFerron said. “Our Republican primary electorate has exploded during that time.”
Pruitt’s checkered, truncated tenure in Trump’s administration could not have helped him, either. Pruitt resigned as the nation’s 14th and second-shortest-serving EPA chief in July 2018 amid a swirl of scandals that included his extravagant spending of public money, a sweetheart deal on a luxury Capitol Hill condo he rented from a gas lobbyist, and his abuse of his official vehicle.
At one point, even Inhofe — a longtime ally and friend of Pruitt — endorsed holding public hearings to investigate the allegations against the EPA boss.
His abrupt departure seemed to extinguish what had been a promising and ambitious career for the Republican, who flirted with becoming Trump’s next attorney general and whose allies had floated him as a possible 2024 presidential contender.
Still, his overall reputation was positive in the Sooner State, McFerron said.
“While there is little doubt that the cloud surrounding him there might have tempered some of the donor class, fighting against those wishing ill on oil and gas is a good place to be in Oklahoma politics,” McFerron said.
Pruitt isn’t the only member of Trump’s Cabinet to lose an election at home. In 2020, Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.), a football coach and political neophyte, defeated Jeff Sessions in a primary contest for the seat the former U.S. attorney general held before joining the Trump administration. Trump, who soured on Sessions after the attorney general recused himself from the investigation into the president’s dealings with Russia, had endorsed Tuberville.
Trump had not made an endorsement in the Oklahoma Senate race. But he backed Mullin’s reelection campaign to Congress in 2020. Both Mullin and Shannon touted their ties and similarities to Trump during the campaign.
Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) nominated Andrew Wheeler, who succeeded Pruitt as EPA administrator, to his state’s top environmental post, but Democrats in the state legislature blocked his confirmation.
Meanwhile, Trump’s former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who left the administration amid his own avalanche of ethics scandals, looks likely to win his seat in Congress representing Montana this year.
Zinke eked out a narrow victory in this month’s Republican primary for Montana’s 1st Congressional District. But the former House member and Navy SEAL is considered the front-runner in a general election where Republicans are broadly favored to win.