Senator Jim Inhofe speaks to media during a press conference with Republican Senators addressing Russian military buildup near the boarder with Ukraine, at the U.S. Capitol, in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, January 19, 2022.
CNN  — 

Oklahoma Sen. Jim Inhofe, a leading conservative Republican and veteran of the Senate, announced on Friday that he will resign in January 2023, sparking a special election this November.

“It is bittersweet, but with a clear heart, that Kay and I announce that at the end of the year, I will retire from the United States Senate,” said Inhofe in a statement, referring to his wife.

Inhofe, 87, is a defense hawk who serves as the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee. He is also a former chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, where he drew the ire of environmentalists over his denunciations of climate change as a “hoax.”

Inhofe won reelection as recently as 2020, and had already planned to make his current term his last. His resignation will likely spark a furious GOP battle for a seat to represent one of the nation’s most conservative states.

In an interview with The Oklahoman, Inhofe endorsed his top aide, Luke Holland, for the November election to replace him.

A number of Oklahoma Republicans are viewed as potential contenders for the seat, including Holland, Lt. Gov. Matt Pinnell, former state House speaker T.W. Shannon, Oklahoma attorney general candidate Gentner Drummond and Reps. Markwayne Mullin and Kevin Hern.

“Senator Inhofe’s early retirement has sent shockwaves through every political circle today,” said Oklahoma GOP strategist John Fritz. “This is going to be a bloodbath of stellar conservatives fighting it out in the primary. The one thing we know for certain is that Hell will freeze over before Democrats win this U.S. Senate seat.”

In his statement, Inhofe noted his 55-year political career – from the state legislature to Tulsa mayor to the US House and Senate – began after he realized he had to visit 27 government offices to obtain a dock permit.

“If we wanted the government to work for the people, not against the people, it was up to us to make a change,” said Inhofe.

Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell praised Inhofe after the announcement.

“I know the Inhofes will be glad to have more time with their consummate family man,” said McConnell. “And while the Senate will miss one of its foremost experts on defense policy, I am glad our friend will continue to serve with us through the end of this Congress.”

The New York Times first reported that Inhofe planned to resign.

This story and headline have been updated with additional developments Friday.