Mike Johnson Coasts to Speakership After Weeks of GOP Mayhem

Win McNamee/Getty Images
Win McNamee/Getty Images

All it took was 22 days of chaos, four Speaker nominees, four failed floor votes, and countless hours of internal debating and voting for Republicans to finally coalesce around a new leader.

On Wednesday afternoon, Rep. Mike Johnson (R-LA) succeeded where three Republicans before him failed: he won the 217 votes needed to claim the mantle of Speaker of the House and ended the leadership crisis sparked by the removal of Kevin McCarthy from the office on Oct. 3.

Ultimately, Johnson didn't lose a single vote: all 220 Republicans supported him on the floor, a feat not even McCarthy could manage in January.

Mike Johnson May Win the Speakership Through Exhaustion and Delusion

First elected to Congress in 2016, Johnson—a strident social conservative and vocal proponent of Donald Trump's baseless 2020 election fraud claims—will be the least legislatively experienced House Speaker in over a century. The third person in line to the presidency is now someone who even some senators don’t know.

After securing the Republican conference’s backing Tuesday evening, Johnson promised he will shepherd in a new era of House GOP unity. Yet his ascension comes after Republicans publicly cannibalized McCarthy, his No. 2 Steve Scalise (R-LA), No. 3 Tom Emmer (R-MN), and Freedom Caucus co-founder Jim Jordan (R-OH).

Though Johnson has served in leadership as the Republican Conference Vice Chair and once led the influential Republican Study Committee bloc, Johnson’s GOP peers see him as a palatable, untainted alternative who is broadly well-liked and respected across the conference.

To illustrate the point, Rep. Kelly Armstrong (R-ND) said on Tuesday that after Jordan failed a third time, he went through all 221 GOP members and considered if any “have the gravitas to succeed in this job and haven’t pissed off four people.”

Johnson, said Armstrong, was one of three who met that criteria.

But outside the House ranks, Johnson very much remains an unknown quantity—even to Republicans. Before the vote, chief Senate GOP appropriator Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) said she doesn’t know him, but was planning to google him this morning, according to CNN.

Meanwhile, Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY), the Senate GOP’s No. 3, said that he also didn’t know Johnson.

“I know what I’ve read in the paper. I know what I’ve read in Politico,” Barrasso told Politico.

Off Capitol Hill, Johnson is known better for his efforts to contest the 2020 presidential election. A constitutional lawyer who rose up the ranks of the House Judiciary Committee, Johnson was a congressional conduit for Trump’s efforts to invalidate Joe Biden’s victory and remain in power.

In addition to voting against certifying the Electoral College votes of Arizona and Pennsylvania after the Capitol attack on Jan. 6, Johnson spearheaded an amicus brief filed by lawmakers in support of a Texas lawsuit which aimed to throw out key state results.

Now presiding over a fractured conference, Johnson must quickly figure out how to avert a government shutdown set for Nov. 17—just over three weeks away—as well as advance an aid package for Israel. He will also be forced to navigate House Republicans’ bitter divide on weapons assistance for Ukraine—one he has tried to straddle by raising concerns about the transparency of aid while declaring the need for Ukraine to win.

GOP Speaker Nominee's Big Problem: He Wouldn’t Overturn 2020 Election

Even with the gavel in hand, Johnson will have to deal with Democrats to advance any legislation. On two important occasions, House Democrats’ votes have been decisive in bailing out McCarthy. In June, they supported legislation to avert a catastrophic default on the federal debt, and in October, they approved a stopgap funding bill to avoid a shutdown.

Any policy with enough support in the House also has to make its way through the Democrat-led Senate—and win the signature of the Democratic president. Not only does Johnson have to build credibility with Senate Republicans, he will have to win over skeptical Democrats.

The Democratic Minority Leader, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), had a cordial relationship with McCarthy. Jeffries knows Johnson well from their time together on the Judiciary Committee. But ahead of the vote on Wednesday, Jeffries didn’t waste time attacking him.

At an event at the Center for American Progress think tank, Jeffries called Johnson “as extreme as the most extreme members of their conference.”

“Mike Johnson, probably more so than almost any other member of the House Republican Conference, wants to criminalize abortion care,” said Jeffries.

Meanwhile, the Republican hardliners who ousted McCarthy earlier this month have shown no signs they will quit puppeteering to get their way. It still takes just one member to force a motion to vacate the speakership, so with Republicans’ razor thin majority only four GOP rebels need to band together to start the search for a speaker all over again.

Already, there’s little indication Johnson will be able to bridge the immense gaps within the GOP on spending, Ukraine, and other issues that doomed McCarthy—but an exhausted party is ready to let someone try.

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