House Republicans have a new speaker. Who is he?

After weeks of infighting, the GOP settled on conservative Mike Johnson.

October 27, 2023, 2:32 PM

tia.yang (Tia Yang, editor/reporter): If you woke up on Wednesday and Googled, "Who is Mike Johnson?," Sen. Susan Collins can relate. After three speakerless weeks and three failed speaker-designates, House Republicans finally united on Tuesday evening around Louisiana Rep. Mike Johnson and unanimously elected him speaker in a floor vote on Wednesday. The fourth-term congressman flew somewhat under the radar heading into Tuesday's GOP conference votes and received only 34 votes on the first secret ballot, but was the second-highest vote getter in all five ballots that morning, ultimately receiving 97 votes to Majority Whip Tom Emmer's 117. After Emmer promptly withdrew in the face of opposition, Johnson secured the nomination in another ballot that evening, to the immense relief of exhausted fellow Republicans.

Johnson checks a lot of boxes that earned him support from disparate wings of the GOP that had been infighting for weeks and effectively tanking other speaker-designates — he's a hard-line social conservative and Trump ally, he's a member of the Judiciary and Armed Services committees, and he's served in a lower-level party leadership role as vice chair of the House GOP Conference.

But he's also far from a household name — so who is this guy? Let's start with the fact that he's already been labeled by many as the most conservative speaker in modern times. How big a win is this for conservatives in the House GOP?

geoffrey.skelley (Geoffrey Skelley, senior elections analyst): Johnson is interesting because he was very close to the House Freedom Caucus, if not formally a member of it (the group has never made its membership list public). The HFC is the most conservative, anti-establishment group of House Republicans. So if you're wondering why the most rightward flank of the party was happy to support Johnson, just look there. They obviously view getting Johnson over a Steve Scalise or Tom Emmer as a win.

nrakich (Nathaniel Rakich, senior editor and elections analyst): It's a decent win for the hard-line wing of the GOP. According to DW-NOMINATE, a political-science metric that quantifies politicians' ideologies based on their roll-call votes, Johnson is both more conservative and more anti-establishment than former Speaker Kevin McCarthy. He's also more conservative and more anti-establishment than the median Republican representative … but not by that much. He's certainly not as conservative or anti-establishment as, say, one-time speaker candidate Jim Jordan.

tia.yang: I think it's interesting in this chart that he's about as far from his party's median as McCarthy is, in the opposite ideological directions. But as you pointed out, Nathaniel, he's not as conservative as Jordan — or, for that matter the next highest vote-getters in Tuesday's conference balloting (Reps. Byron Donalds of Florida and Kevin Hern of Oklahoma in the first round, Donalds and Mark Green of Tennessee in the second).

Several Democratic members and advocacy groups quickly labeled Johnson as "Jim Jordan with a jacket," but that's not necessarily reflected in his voting record. Is the "most conservative speaker ever" narrative overblown?

nrakich: I mean, I think it's significant that he's historically conservative. But you're right — there has been a lot of talk about how staunchly anti-abortion and anti-gay-marriage he is, and especially about how he voted not to certify the results of the 2020 election. But in this, Johnson is hardly alone. Most House Republicans voted not to certify the election. (To be clear, there is no evidence of large-scale fraud, and that election should have been certified without complaint.)

geoffrey.skelley: Yeah, basically two-thirds of House Republicans who were in office on Jan. 6, 2021, voted to object to the results in either Arizona or Pennsylvania — or both. That's the normal position within the party right now — of the GOP speaker candidates, only Emmer and Georgia Rep. Austin Scott voted to certify the results.

I mean, let us not forget that McCarthy also voted to object to certifying the results.

tia.yang: I think the fact that he came out on top after Emmer's collapse also contributed to this being a big narrative coming out of the speaker fight. It started in part as a proxy for GOP disagreements over spending and distrust with the party establishment, but ended with conservatives tanking Emmer's candidacy in part because of his votes last year to codify the right to same-sex marriage and his lack of closeness with Donald Trump.

geoffrey.skelley: Again, this takes us back to the most right-wing flank of the GOP objecting to McCarthy in January and then Emmer earlier this week in the internal conference votes for speaker. Around 25 Republicans said they wouldn't support Emmer — spurred on by Trump, who opposed Emmer — and they mostly came from the party's far right. Johnson, by contrast, had opposition during the speaker nomination balloting, but he ended up getting unanimous support on the floor because the Republicans who opposed Jordan (mostly less conservative members) said OK to him. It's no wonder then that the Freedom Caucus views this as a big win.

nrakich: Right. Johnson basically won because the GOP conference seemed exhausted and just wanted the speaker fight to end. Both the establishment and insurgent wings of the party put up a fight and torpedoed a few candidates (McCarthy, Scalise, Jordan, Emmer), but in the end it was the establishment wing that caved and said, "Yeah, OK, this guy is fine — this isn't worth the headache of more dysfunction."

tia.yang: To what extent did the establishment wing cave, versus actually being OK with a Speaker Johnson? Johnson was a member of party leadership, after all. And he's a bit more mainstream when it comes to fiscal matters. For example, he's a member of the Armed Services Committee who's supported defense spending — something that allayed the fears of defense hawks who opposed Jordan's candidacy.

nrakich: I guess it's hard to know for sure, but it seemed like there was a fair amount of discontent with him initially. On Tuesday night, Kentucky Rep. Thomas Massie said, "He's uniquely positioned to lose 30 votes on either side of the conference." (Massie, for his part, was one of the last potential holdouts from the right, voting "present" in conference but supporting Johnson on the floor.)

geoffrey.skelley: Yeah, in that sense the more moderate members did cave — 44 Republicans voted for "other" on the third ballot for speaker nominee on Tuesday evening, and it turned out that 43 were for McCarthy. But it sounds like some Republicans essentially viewed that as a sign that McCarthy might be trying to get his old job back, and so they moved to ask if members would support Johnson on the floor following the balloting instead of waiting for a meeting the following morning. That got the conference behind Johnson and set up his win on Wednesday. I'd love for someone to dig further into those machinations!

tia.yang: Same! Glad you pointed that out. I thought the number of McCarthy votes was fascinating. The growing prospect of a McCarthy return or a play by moderate Democrats to empower acting Speaker Pro Tempore Patrick McHenry or, worse, elect a compromise speaker candidate, very well could have pushed some of conservatives (like Massie) firmly into Johnson's camp.

geoffrey.skelley: I suspect the "moderate compromise with Democrats" idea was always a talking point rather than an actual fear. No Republican was ever going to vote for that, unless they were announcing their retirement.

That said, Republicans may have gone with the "let's make McHenry interim speaker for a couple of months" option had the impasse continued. But I view that as a bit different from some sort of truly coalitional arrangement. Anyway, this whole mess has been very fun for analysts — if no one else.

tia.yang: Let's pivot to another historic metric — Johnson's relative inexperience. How inexperienced is he really, and should Republicans be worried about that?

geoffrey.skelley: It's pretty remarkable in a historical sense just how little experience Johnson, who is in his fourth term, has compared to most past speakers. I looked back, and the last time someone became speaker who had as short a tenure as Johnson was in 1883, when the House elected Democratic Rep. John G. Carlisle of Kentucky as speaker. That was, needless to say, a very long time ago.

However, it's worth noting that once Scalise and Jordan were off the table, a less experienced speaker was practically a given. Most of the most well-known speaker candidates had about as much experience as or even less than Johnson: Emmer (fifth term), Donalds (second), Hern (fourth term, including a short stint in the 115th Congress) and Green (third).

nrakich: I do think Johnson's inexperience could prove to be a liability, both governing-wise and electorally. First, he obviously lacks the deep relationships on the Hill with people like Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. That could make it harder to strike a deal to keep the government from shutting down in (gulp) three weeks.

And second, I think it's risky electorally because Johnson simply hasn't been vetted. A lot of people were just learning about him for the first time the other day. We've already learned some unsavory details, like his promotion of the conspiracy theory that Dominion voting systems came from Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. Could he have more skeletons in the closet that we don't know about?

tia.yang: The conventional wisdom might be that a more conservative speaker is bad for Democrats, but in the current political climate, some Democrats feel his inexperience and record could actually help them. They see him as a blank slate for their attacks against the GOP more broadly. Will these attacks stick? Will this be a factor in the GOP's ability to hold onto their House majority in 2024?

nrakich: Yeah, I mean, I do think that some of Johnson's positions and past comments (like saying homosexuality leads to pedophilia) lend themselves well to Democratic attack ads. But I'm not sure how much they will matter. For years, Republicans have been running attack ads linking vulnerable House Democrats to former Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and I'm not sure how much those have really moved the needle. (I'm genuinely not sure! I tried to see if anyone had investigated this question, and I didn't find any answers. Readers, let me know if you've seen any research on this!)

But I guess Democrats can say stuff like, "Rep. Mike Lawler voted to make Mike Johnson, who said homosexuality leads to pedophilia, speaker of the House. He's not as moderate as he says he is." That could help counteract the moderate image Lawler et al. want to project for themselves.

tia.yang: Democrats wasted no time going after Mike Lawler.

geoffrey.skelley: There's no question that Johnson's anonymity could make it easier for Democrats to define him. However, from an electoral standpoint, I kind of think Johnson's profile might matter more if we were going into a midterm year with no presidential election at the top of the ticket. Instead, we're heading into 2024, where the race for the White House will predominantly drive voting patterns. So, I'm not sure how much Johnson is going to matter in the grand scheme of things. He could influence things a little bit at the margins, and the margins matter, but the presidential race will be foremost on people's minds.

nrakich: Yeah, good point, Geoffrey. Something like 90 percent of people's House vote is going to be determined by their vote at the top of the ticket.

geoffrey.skelley: Essentially, in a midterm year you might've seen Democrats running against Johnson and a more conservative, potentially combative House. But in a presidential year, that's going to be a bit down the list in terms of what voters are thinking about.

nrakich: Oh, there's one underrated area where Johnson could be a liability, though: fundraising. Historically, it has been the speaker's role to raise millions of dollars for his or her party's House candidates. For example, McCarthy raised $28.3 million in 2022, just for his official campaign account (so not including his affiliated PACs). But Johnson has a very thin fundraising record. He has never raised more than $1.4 million in a cycle.

tia.yang: This is a big step up. I'm curious how much other House GOP leaders will need to support him here, among other areas. Is this going to be one way Johnson's "decentralized" leadership takes form?

geoffrey.skelley: I suspect a wait-and-see approach will be best for getting a read on Johnson's fundraising ability. He's never had to worry much in his deep-red seat, and now that he's the party's leader, his events may bring in more money just because of that. But it could certainly end up being a concern for the GOP.