When Republicans elected Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.) as House Speaker last week, the party celebrated the end of a turbulent stretch of infighting and dysfunction, hailing their new leader as someone who could bridge the divides in the party.
But in the days since, as Johnson’s ultraconservative positions have come into view, Democrats have moved aggressively to tie Republicans to his record, which they argue is unpopular with swing voters. They have worked to publicize Johnson’s views on the 2020 election (he worked to overturn the results), abortion (he has talked of banning it nationally) and social programs (he has advocated cutting Social Security and Medicare).
“MAGA Mike Johnson’s ascension to the speakership cements the extreme MAGA takeover of the House Republican Conference,” a Biden campaign spokesman said in a statement when Johnson was elected. “Now, Donald Trump has his loyal foot soldier to ban abortion nationwide, lead efforts to deny free and fair election results, gut Social Security and Medicare, and advance the extreme MAGA agenda at the expense of middle-class families.”
The campaign also released a video showing figures like former president Donald Trump and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) praising Johnson. It also includes clips of Johnson talking about abortion and the 2020 election, concluding with the tagline: “Stop MAGA extremism.”
Still, many of the attacks on Johnson are likely to come from the Democratic National Committee and the party’s House campaigns. They have spent the week since Johnson’s selection targeting vulnerable Republicans in Biden-friendly districts, feeding quotes to newspapers in states like California, New York and Pennsylvania that highlight the discordance of moderate Republicans supporting a MAGA conservative for speaker.
DNC officials also said Johnson’s ascent has been a financial boon so far: A fundraising email the party sent out after he was chosen was their best-performing email in October.
Still, members of both parties said it could be a challenge for Democrats to turn Johnson into a figure who prompts enough impassioned dislike among voters to make him an effective boogeyman. He rose to the speakership with the lowest profile in recent memory, having been elected to Congress only in 2016.
But some vulnerable Republicans privately expressed concerns that Johnson, who was little-known even to some of his colleagues before last week, has taken far-reaching positions that could hurt the party’s prospects in Democratic-leaning areas as the new speaker’s record becomes more familiar to voters.
“I’m pretty sure nobody was out looking that all up,” one vulnerable Republican lawmaker said on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly about Johnson’s record. “This was moving fairly fast.”
In particular, some Republicans have raised concerns about Johnson’s record on LGBTQ+ issues. In his early career as a lawyer, he wrote strongly worded amicus briefs against same-sex marriage and supported sodomy laws that would have criminalized homosexuality. He recently introduced legislation in Congress similar to a Florida measure that restricts the discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in school, which critics call the “don’t say gay” law.
But many Republican strategists say Democrats are misguided if they think they can turn Johnson into a mascot for the entire GOP. Republicans used that strategy against former speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), but she was a far more recognizable figure and it took Republicans years to make her into an identifiable target. And Republicans say privately it will take just as long for them to frame House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), who is also relatively new to his position, as a target for their voters.
Johnson, for all his hard-line positions, is a newcomer with an affable personality. Equally important, Republicans say, the 2024 election will revolve around the parties’ presidential nominees, not a figure like the House speaker.
“We’re not in a midterm election,” said Doug Heye, a Republican strategist who helped lead the “Fire Pelosi” campaign that ended with Republicans capturing the House during President Barack Obama’s first term. “’Fire Pelosi’ was 2010, where it was very easy to make her the focus of congressional elections. If we tried it two years later, the conversation is all about Obama and Romney, not Pelosi.”
He added: “You can see Democrats saying, ‘Trump and Johnson’ — but the Trump part is the much louder part.”
One Republican strategist, speaking on the condition of anonymity to be frank about sensitive political dynamics, was more blunt: “Do you really believe that Mike Johnson will be the person they will run ads against, when Donald Trump is running from jail as the presidential nominee?”
Heye conceded that Democrats had briefly gained a fundraising advantage during the turbulent three-week stretch when House Republicans could not settle on a speaker, but he said Johnson has moved quickly to build out his team and try to make up for lost time.
Republicans also say Democrats will have a hard time demonizing Johnson because his mild manner makes him a much less controversial figure than someone like Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), who was nominated for speaker before Johnson but could not win a House majority. Jordan is a known entity among voters as a Trump ally and spokesman for MAGA conservatism who has aggressively pursued President Biden and his administration.
Johnson, while a staunch conservative, is also a consensus builder who will not insist that everyone vote his way, some moderate Republicans said.
“Democrats would be saying we have a right-wing speaker no matter who it was. Really, whoever we picked would have been the antichrist to them. They already had the ads — we just had to submit the name,” Rep. Marcus J. Molinaro (R-N.Y.) said. “We don’t agree on all things, but he has the capacity to build up his reputation and he’s suited to hold us together, not force us into things we don’t want to do.”
If Democrats focus too sharply on Johnson, they will not be talking about issues that voters truly care about like the economy, crime and the border, added one Republican operative, adding that the strategy would be “trying to put lipstick on a pig.”
Democrats concede that it could be hard to turn Johnson into a household name by next November, especially if Trump is on the ballot taking up the political oxygen. But they argue that his ascent to the speakership nonetheless gives them an opportunity to drive home the central message of their campaign — that Republicans have become a radical party divorced from the needs of voters.
“There is a very good chance he is going to end up being a boogeyman and/or he will end up being the embodiment of the MAGA extremism of the Republican conference,” said Viet Shelton, a spokesperson for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which coordinates the party’s House races.
The fact that Johnson starts with such a blank slate, with almost no name recognition, has prompted Democrats to move quickly to define him for voters. House Majority PAC, the main group that supports House leadership financially in elections, bought an ad in the D.C. region this week that highlighted Johnson’s backing of abortion restrictions, efforts to overturn the 2020 election result and support for cutting Social Security benefits.
Mike Smith, Majority PAC’s president, said the group believes Johnson will have a hard time protecting vulnerable Republicans, many of whom represent districts that Biden won in 2020. Former speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who was a pragmatist in many ways, prided himself on protecting those Republicans from electoral backlash.
Unlike Johnson, McCarthy did not come out of the religious conservative Trump loyalist factions of the party, which allowed him to actively campaign for Republicans in pro-Biden districts without hurting their prospects.
“In the back of his head, he was trying to figure out a way that they held the majority,” Smith said of McCarthy. “I think MAGA Mike Johnson, his primary motivation is not holding the majority. It is advocating for these really extreme views.”
Since becoming speaker, Johnson has moved quickly to try to alleviate such concerns, announcing that he would keep McCarthy’s team at the Congressional Leadership Fund, the largest funder of advertising to support House GOP campaigns. Johnson flew to Las Vegas last weekend to introduce himself to major GOP donors, according to a person familiar with the meeting who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a private event.
McCarthy was also an accomplished fundraiser who had developed personal relationships with many of the party’s top contributors, including wealthy business leaders and megadonors who tend to be relatively moderate on social issues like abortion and LGBTQ+ rights. Because of his pragmatism, McCarthy’s positions on key issues could sometimes shift — for example, saying Trump bore responsibility for the Jan. 6 attack, 2021, on the U.S. Capitol, then meeting with Trump weeks later at Mar-a-Lago.
Johnson’s challenge, after a month of lost fundraising time during the speaker fight, is to maintain relationships with the discordant factions of his party without backing down from his positions that have earned him loyalty from the right. Republicans working on House races say Johnson’s measured tone, which contrasts with the rhetoric of his party’s right flank, has already helped with donors.
And there is little evidence so far that the Republicans’ speakership battle — which saw McCarthy ousted and three of his would-be successors fail in sequence before Johnson was finally chosen — has significantly damaged GOP efforts to recruit House candidates.
Since McCarthy was deposed, Alison Esposito, a 25-year New York Police Department veteran and former candidate for lieutenant governor, announced that she would run for a vulnerable Hudson Valley seat now held by a Democrat. Republicans also recruited Joe Teirab, the son of a Sudanese immigrant and a Marine Corps veteran, former federal prosecutor and Harvard Law School graduate, to run in a Democratic-held district in the Twin Cities suburbs.