Rep. Mike Johnson, a relatively inexperienced Louisiana Republican who fought to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election, was elected speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday, ending weeks of leaderless chaos that followed the Oct. 3 ouster of Bakersfield's Rep. Kevin McCarthy.
Johnson's ascension to the speaker's chair cements the GOP's fiercely pro-Trump, far-right faction as the face of the national party. The speaker of the House is second in line, after the vice president, to fill any presidential vacancy.
The vote was 220 to 209, with House Republicans voting unanimously for Johnson, and all Democrats present backing Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries of New York.
The outcome thrusts Johnson, a 51-year-old former conservative talk radio host in his fourth term in Congress, into the national spotlight.
Johnson, a longtime opponent of abortion rights and LGBTQ+ rights, served in Louisiana's state Legislature from 2015 to 2017. In Washington, he ran the Republican Study Committee, a group of socially conservative lawmakers, and served as vice chair of the House Republican Caucus, a low-ranking party leadership post.
But he has never chaired a congressional committee, and is the least experienced speaker in 140 years.
The Louisianan was a key player in former President Trump's efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. Johnson not only voted against certifying some states' election results, he also helped rally over 100 House Republicans to sign a brief in support of a Texas-led effort to get the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the results in four states won by then-candidate Joe Biden, a Democrat.
The Texas lawsuit received stiff backlash not only from Democrats but also legal experts, who deemed it meritless and shallow.
Johnson supports new restrictions on abortion and the rights of LGBTQ+ Americans. He has won consecutive A-plus ratings from Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, a Washington-based nonprofit that opposes abortion rights, for his efforts to limit access to the procedure.
Last year, he introduced legislation that would have banned federally funded institutions from discussing sexual orientation and gender identity. He is an avowed opponent of gender-affirming care for trans youth.
In the mid-2000s, Johnson, who was then working for a socially conservative legal advocacy group, wrote opinion pieces for his local paper defending laws that criminalized same-sex sexual relations and expressing fervent opposition to same-sex marriage, CNN reported Wednesday.
"Homosexual relationships are inherently unnatural," he wrote, before going on to warn that legalizing same-sex marriage could be a slippery slope to allowing "a person to marry his pet."
Johnson didn't take any questions at a news conference Wednesday, and hasn't addressed his decades-old opinion pieces since his elevation to the speaker's chair.
Around three-quarters of likely voters in California support same-sex marriage and say that abortion should be legal in most or all cases, according to a January poll by the Public Policy Institute of California.
Democrats described Johnson as an extremist.
“Mike Johnson is anti-democratic, anti-family, and anti-American," Pomona's Rep. Norma Torres said in a statement, adding: "It is a disgrace that House Republicans chose to elect an extremist as Speaker, rather than pursue a bipartisan path forward for the American people."
Californian Republicans expressed relief that Johnson's election ended their conference's chaos.
Rep. Young Kim of Anaheim Hills said in a statement that she "came to Congress to get things done, not grandstand," and promised that she would hold Johnson "to his word as we continue to govern for the American people."
Johnson's election severely tempers the Golden State's political power in Congress.
With both Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco and McCarthy now serving as speaker emeriti, only two Californians remain in congressional leadership: Democratic Reps. Ted Lieu of Torrance and Pete Aguilar of Redlands. And with Sen. Dianne Feinstein's passing last month, the delegation lost her decades of seniority in the Senate.
As speaker, Johnson will need to negotiate with seasoned Democratic leadership, including Biden and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York, on a swath of pressing issues, including potential funding for Ukraine and Israel to aid them in their respective wars.
“Virtually no one has any idea how Mr. Johnson will perform,” Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster, told The Times. “That’s probably the takeaway of the day — a whole series of question marks about him and his leadership.”
Johnson will also need to decide whether to make a deal with Democrats to fend off a Nov. 17 government shutdown that could leave military service members and other federal employees without pay ahead of the holidays.
Before the floor vote to elect him, Johnson sketched out a one-year road map for the GOP conference, saying he would pass key appropriations bills by the end of this week.
In a statement, Biden congratulated Johnson on his election and made clear his party's priorities, including avoiding a mid-November shutdown.
"This is a time for all of us to act responsibly, and to put the good of the American people and the everyday priorities of American families above any partisanship," the president said.
The House GOP went more than three weeks without a leader after eight Republicans, led by Florida's Matt Gaetz, voted to jettison McCarthy with the help of House Democrats.
In his first address as speaker, Johnson nodded to McCarthy's tenure.
"You would be hard-pressed to find anybody who loves this institution more or who has contributed more to it. He is the reason we're in this majority today," Johnson said. "You helped build it, Kevin, and we owe you a great debt of gratitude."
McCarthy's ouster caused embarrassing infighting within the GOP conference to spill into the public eye. Before Johnson, three other men who raised their hands for the role — House Majority Leader Steve Scalise of Louisiana; Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, chair of the Judiciary Committee; and Majority Whip Tom Emmer of Minnesota — tried and failed to secure enough votes.
Scalise dropped out a day after securing the nomination. Jordan endured three humiliating floor votes before being forced to abandon his effort. Emmer, who voted to certify the 2020 election results, quickly saw stiff opposition from far-right members and their leader, Trump, who knifed the Minnesotan on social media, implying GOP lawmakers should block his candidacy. Four hours after clinching the nomination, Emmer dropped out.
Ahead of Wednesday's floor vote, Trump made clear his support for Johnson.
Though Johnson is not as well-known as the Republicans who just failed to secure the speakership, his lack of a national profile may have ultimately aided his campaign.
A forthcoming HBO documentary on a major sex abuse scandal at Ohio State University could have haunted the GOP if Jordan, a former assistant wrestling coach there, had been elevated to the speakership. And Scalise has faced flak for reportedly attending an event in the early 2000s hosted by a group founded by David Duke, former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.
Jordan, like Johnson, was deeply involved in election denialism, but Colorado's Rep. Ken Buck, who voted for Johnson on Wednesday and against Jordan previously, said there was a key difference between their records.
Ahead of the floor vote, Buck said that Johnson's involvement was distinct from Jordan's because Johnson focused his efforts on the legal system, which is "fundamentally different than somebody who is actively involved in moving the protesters from the [National] Mall" to the Capitol, he told reporters.
The revolving door of speaker nominees was never about finding the right person to lead the Republican conference, Aguilar said in a floor speech nominating Jeffries to the speakership.
“This is about who can appease Donald Trump," the California Democrat said.
At least three Republicans stood and applauded in response.
Ed Rollins, a GOP strategist and former senior advisor to President Reagan, agreed with Aguilar’s assessment, saying: "There’s never been a president, in my lifetime, that’s ever played such a role in the House."
“Historically, presidents go and raise money," he said. "But they don’t mess around with the speaker's race."
Before Johnson took his oath of office at 2:45 p.m. Eastern, he addressed his colleagues for about 20 minutes, urging his conference to remain unified so they can accomplish their goals. He vowed that his speaker's office would be known for "trust, transparency and accountability."
Johnson also had a message for those watching the dysfunction in Washington:
"The people's House is back in business."
Logan reported from Washington and Pinho from Santa Barbara.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.