Matt Gaetz’s gamble appears to have paid off.
Gaetz, a far-right House Republican who viewed Speaker Kevin McCarthy as too willing to compromise with Democrats, started a process three weeks ago to unseat him. Not only did that effort work, but House Republicans emerged from their recent chaos yesterday to elect Mike Johnson as the new speaker. And Johnson is much closer to the House’s hard-right faction than McCarthy was.
“I believe history will assess these three weeks as the most productive weeks of the 118th Congress,” Gaetz told The Wall Street Journal yesterday. “Because now we have both a man and a plan.”
Johnson had little national profile until he emerged as the leading candidate for speaker on Tuesday night. Senator Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, said yesterday morning that she would have to Google him. This obscurity became an advantage for him.
Unlike the three failed speaker candidates who came before him, Johnson has few enemies among House Republicans. His hallmark in Congress, our colleague Annie Karni wrote in a profile of Johnson, “has been combining his hard-line views with a gentle personal style.”
But Johnson’s affable nature does not mean that he is a consensus candidate. He is a man of the right. “In the end, Republican hard-liners got their man,” as Carl Hulse, The Times’s chief Washington correspondent, put it.
Johnson may be the most conservative speaker in U.S. history. He opposes abortion rights and same-sex marriage. He proposed a bill to block the discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity with children younger than 10 at any federally funded institution. In a statement yesterday President Biden’s 2024 campaign labeled him “MAGA Mike” while Donald Trump said that Johnson would “do a great job.”
Beyond his conservatism on policy issues, Johnson closely aligned himself with Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election results based on false claims of election fraud. Johnson played a leading role in recruiting House Republicans to sign a legal brief seeking to overturn the results.
Why, then, did more mainstream Republicans vote for Johnson yesterday after blocking Jim Jordan, a previous hard-right speaker nominee, partly because of his role in trying to overturn the 2020 election? In part, they saw no other way out of their party’s recent turmoil, given their own limited numbers. “They got tired of the squabbling and dysfunction and wanted to get back to work,” Catie Edmondson, a Times congressional reporter, told us.
Mike Lawler, a relative moderate from New York, posted a photo on social media yesterday of him and Johnson shaking hands. “While there are issues where we differ, we must get back to governing for the good of the country,” Lawler wrote.
In today’s newsletter, we’ll tell you more about Johnson — who, less than seven years removed from being a state legislator in Louisiana, is suddenly the top-ranking Republican in Washington — and the challenges he will likely face in managing the unruly Republican caucus.
Who is Mike Johnson?
Johnson, 51, grew up in Shreveport, La. His father was a firefighter who in 1984 was nearly killed in a plant explosion that disabled him. “It changed the course of our family’s lives,” Johnson told his hometown paper. He said that he had dreamed of being a firefighter but instead attended Louisiana State University and became a constitutional lawyer.
“I’m the first college graduate in my family,” Johnson said yesterday, in a speech after being elected speaker. (In that speech, The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board wrote, “he came off as gracious, funny and smart.”)
Before running for office, Johnson successfully defended the state’s ban on same-sex marriage before the Louisiana Supreme Court. He served briefly in the Louisiana State Legislature and was elected to Congress in 2016.
He is an evangelical Christian. He and his wife, Kelly, who have four children, host a podcast about religion and politics called “Truth Be Told.”
2020 election denial
Johnson is one of the congressional Republicans who worry many democracy experts because they rejected a core tenet of the American system: the willingness to accept the defeat of their own party. The political scientist Juan Linz described figures like him as “semi-loyal actors”: politicians who don’t initiate attacks on democracy but do go along with them.
Johnson devised a legal theory to justify Trump’s objection to the 2020 results, and many of his House colleagues endorsed it. Johnson also rallied support for a Texas lawsuit that sought to overturn the results in four Biden-won swing states. The Supreme Court rejected that case. (Here’s a Times story with more details).
“When it came to overthrowing the election, he was not a backbencher,” Michael Waldman, the president of the Brennan Center for Justice, told us. “He was a strategist.”
If Trump again loses in 2024 and falsely claims fraud, Johnson may be in a better position to help him. As Waldman asked, “Is this guy going to stand up for the Constitution? Or is he going to do what he did last time?”
The first issue Johnson may have to confront as speaker is funding for Ukraine. He has opposed spending more money on the war. Others in his party continue to call for more funding. The matter will likely be at the center of the negotiations to fund the government and avert a shutdown next month.
The Ukraine issue is a reminder that Johnson, like McCarthy, may have trouble managing his colleagues. And despite Johnson’s background, his biggest threat may come from hard-right members like Gaetz, given that Johnson will likely need to compromise at times with Senate Democrats and Biden.
“If they think of Mike Johnson as one of them, well, maybe that’s the longer leash that he’ll need,” Sarah Binder, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told us. “But the challenges are still there.”
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