Parties race to define little-known Speaker Johnson ahead of 2024 fight for House majority

Rep. Mike Lawler called the GOP ouster of Kevin McCarthy “one of the stupidest moves in politics,” attacked Rep. Matt Gaetz as a “charlatan” who should be expelled from their conference for leading the charge, and was one of the Republicans who blocked Jim Jordan’s ascension to the speakership.

But when the freshman Republican said the words “Mike Johnson” on the House floor last week to elect the conservative Louisiana Republican as the next speaker, Democrats were elated.

“Bye, bye,” Democratic Rep. Nydia Velazquez, a fellow New Yorker, shouted across the chamber.

Johnson’s sudden ascent to the speakership – from a rank-and-file backbencher representing a northern Louisiana district to now the most powerful Republican in Congress – has quickly emerged as a race to define him in the eyes of voters in swing districts across the country.

Democratic leaders are already strategizing to try to tie the little-known speaker’s views on social issues to the 18 Republicans from Democratic-leaning districts in their fight for the House – much the way Republicans spent years making Nancy Pelosi a bogeyman in election after election.

But Republicans in swing districts expect that Johnson will project a more moderate and pragmatic tone and will emerge as a well-liked leader – and that he fully understands that his role as speaker is far different from than serving as a rank-and-file member in a deep-red district.

“He now represents an institution,” said GOP Rep. Anthony D’Esposito, who, like Lawler, represents a New York district that President Joe Biden carried in 2020 and will be central to the battle for the majority. “He represents all the members of the House of Representatives. He no longer just represents a district in Louisiana. … He has a very good understanding that there are districts that are very different across this country.”

Lawler said voters will ultimately judge him on his record – not Johnson’s.

“The people in my district understand who I am,” Lawler said. “No matter who I supported (Democrats) would have found fault with.”

Lawler added: “I’ve been very clear where I am on these issues. Certainly, the speaker can defend his own positions.”

Johnson, 51 and in just his sixth year in the House, will now assume control of a political operation that McCarthy spent years amassing, turning himself into a fundraising juggernaut for the GOP.

In McCarthy’s time as GOP leader and later speaker, he raked in $637 million for his two affiliated outside groups, the Congressional Leadership Fund and the American Action Network. And federal records show that McCarthy raised $78 million for four of his fundraising entities this year.

Johnson, by contrast, raised just $6.6 million for three of his fundraising entities since he first won his seat in 2016 and just $553,000 for his campaign in 2023 alone.

“Clearly, he was their No. 1 fundraiser – so obviously that has an impact,” Rep. Suzan DelBene of Washington, who runs the Democrats’ campaign arm, said of McCarthy.

McCarthy’s ideological views were never a key part of the Democrats’ campaign for the House – but Democrats view Johnson as far different. Johnson previously wrote in support of criminalizing gay sex, has been a vocal opponent of abortion, and wrote an amicus brief calling on the Supreme Court to overturn Biden’s 2020 victory over Donald Trump in several swing states – leading Democrats to see an opportunity to take advantage of his election as speaker.

“He is a new face, but the same extremism, in fact, maybe even more extreme,” DelBene told CNN. “When folks look at these folks in these purple districts and ask them what they stand for, and they’ve been willing to elect and support an extreme agenda of House Republicans, voters are going to reject that.”

The Congressional Integrity Project, an outside political group that works closely with Democrats, is already calling Johnson the “new MAGA Speaker” – a term eagerly embraced by Republican hardliners as they plaster posters across Capitol Hill with his face and the words: “Election Denier. Trump Stooge. MAGA Extremist.”

And Courage for America, a progressive nonprofit dedicated to countering “extremism” in politics, launched a new campaign ad targeting every single New York Republican for their speaker vote and highlighting a news conference where a reporter was booed by Republican lawmakers for asking Johnson about his history of election denialism.

One Democratic operative told CNN that they have been scrambling to scrub Johnson’s record, but it’s an effort proving to be much more difficult given his generally lower profile over the years – especially compared with firebrand Trump allies like Rep. Jim Jordan, who failed to win the speakership.

Republicans say Democrats are badly miscalculating – and that the election will turn on other issues, not Johnson’s positions.

“Republicans will grow the majority under Speaker Johnson by weaponizing extreme Democrats’ dangerous policies on the border, crime and economy against them,” said Will Reinert, spokesman for the House GOP’s campaign arm.

The new speaker and his allies have worked to stress that his personal convictions are not representative of policy approaches he plans to take as leader of the House – something he alluded to in an interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity last week. And Johnson, a constitutional lawyer, said he advanced arguments against gay marriage in his role as a litigator, while adding “I don’t even remember” some past writings.

“I respect the rule of law but also genuinely love all people regardless of their lifestyle choices,” said Johnson, who called himself a “Bible-believing Christian.”

“Everybody comes to the House of Representatives with deep personal convictions, but all of our personal convictions are not going to become law,” Johnson said.

Indeed, it’s unclear whether the strategy to demagogue Johnson will work. Republicans, for example, spent tens of millions of dollars in the 2018 midterms to attack and vilify Pelosi in the hopes of convincing voters to back the Republican candidate in their district – a move that ultimately failed when Democrats took back the House with a double-digit majority.

It’s also a move that comes with a certain degree of risk as efforts to attack Johnson, who colleagues describe as affable and friendly, have the potential to backfire.

Republican Rep. Don Bacon of Nebraska’s 2nd District, which Biden won in 2020, is unconcerned about Johnson’s record, arguing that the Democratic Party would push to demonize anyone – regardless of their views.

“They would do that with anybody. I’ve been around here now for seven years. I don’t care,” Bacon told CNN, adding that he thinks Johnson has a “winning vision.”

But some of Johnson’s hard-right colleagues say they expect him to stay true to his core beliefs – with Gaetz going as far as calling him “MAGA Mike.” Gaetz says he’s not concerned if the label sticks.

“Well, I’m not a Democrat political consultant. I just am describing our speaker as I see him,” the Florida Republican told CNN. “When front-line members were voting in unison for Mike Johnson, it was certainly with a mind toward the value he can bring to their reelection campaigns.”

Ultimately, Republicans voted to elect Johnson after 22 days of a House that had been totally paralyzed after McCarthy’s ouster and set off an ugly leadership scramble to succeed him.

Many Republicans say the jury is still out on whether he can do the job.

Asked twice whether he believed Johnson was prepared to be speaker, Rep. Patrick McHenry – a close McCarthy ally who served as the interim speaker amid the leadership vacuum – wouldn’t say.

“The House Republicans made the determination that he was, and I’m a steward of the office to the 56th speaker,” McHenry told CNN. “And I did that.”

Republicans in critical battlegrounds say they will give Johnson time to build his team and political operation before making an assessment on his leadership skills.

GOP Rep. Tony Gonzales, who represents a competitive district along the Texas border, said Johnson’s mild-mannered temperament is part of what makes him an “attractive” leader.

“Mike has a very conservative record. I think what is going to unite us all here is Mike is less focused on rhetoric and more on policy,” he told CNN. “If we focus on policies, then I think we can win. If we focus on rhetoric, there’s no doubt we’ll lose.”

Rep. Nancy Mace, who has said that Republicans need to espouse more moderate positions on abortion and women’s health issues and voted to oust McCarthy because, she said, he didn’t uphold his commitment on those issues, embraced Johnson as someone she can trust – despite his social policy views.

“I will never agree with any speaker 100% of the time,” Mace told CNN. “That is not what this was about. This was about delivering someone who is humble, who is honest and who will tell the truth. And that’s what Mike Johnson brings to the table.”

Mace added: “I was lied to by the former speaker. The disgraced former speaker committed to working with me on certain women’s issues and didn’t do a damn thing for women.”

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