When Representative Mike Johnson arrived in Congress in 2017, he received an important piece of advice from a fellow Louisianan, Representative Steve Scalise. “Be careful about your early alliances that you make,” Scalise told Johnson, as the younger Republican recalled in a C-SPAN interview that year. Avoid getting “marginalized or labeled in any way.”
Six years later, Johnson has followed that advice all the way to the House speakership, reaching a post that is second in line to the presidency faster than any other lawmaker in modern congressional history. Staunchly conservative and closely aligned with former President Donald Trump, the 51-year-old former talk-radio host made few headlines and fewer enemies as he climbed the ranks of his party.
With a 220–209 House vote this afternoon, Johnson was able to forge a consensus that eluded three previous aspirants—including his own mentor, Scalise—to replace Kevin McCarthy. He earned unanimous support from Republican members, who stood and applauded when he clinched a majority of the chamber. His victory ends a weeks-long power struggle that immobilized the House as a war started in the Middle East and a government shutdown loomed.
Johnson’s win was as sudden as it was improbable. Early yesterday afternoon, he lost a secret-ballot vote to become the House GOP’s third speaker nominee in as many weeks. But the winner of that tally, Representative Tom Emmer of Minnesota, faced immediate backlash from social conservatives and Trump allies over his support for same-sex marriage and his 2021 vote to certify Joe Biden’s election as president. More than two dozen Republicans told Emmer that they would not support him in a public floor vote, putting him in the same perilous position as the previous GOP speaker nominee, Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio. While Emmer was trying to win them over, Trump denounced him as “a globalist RINO.” Emmer’s nomination was dead after just four hours.
As the fifth-ranking House GOP leader, Johnson was next in line. Late last night, he captured the nomination in the second round of balloting. His victory was far from unanimous, but rank-and-file Republicans who had initially voted against Johnson, apparently weary after weeks of infighting, decided to support him.
Johnson’s ascent is a product of both the GOP’s ideological conformity and its ongoing loyalty to Trump. His record in the House is no more moderate than Jordan’s, whose preference for antagonism over compromise turned off an ultimately decisive faction of the party. Both Johnson and Jordan served as chairs of the Republican Study Committee—the largest conservative bloc in the House—and played key roles in Trump’s effort to overturn his defeat in 2020. Johnson enlisted Republican lawmakers to sign a legal brief urging the Supreme Court to allow state legislatures to effectively nullify the votes of their citizens. Despite Johnson’s involvement, he won the support of at least one Republican, Representative Ken Buck of Colorado, who had refused to vote for Jordan, because the Ohioan didn’t acknowledge the legitimacy of Biden’s win.
For electorally vulnerable House Republicans, Johnson’s relative anonymity was an asset. They rejected Jordan in large part because they feared that his notoriety and uncompromising style would play poorly in their districts. By contrast, Johnson, who heeded Scalise’s advice to avoid being “marginalized or labeled,” comes across as mild-mannered and polite. He could be harder for Democrats to demonize. Johnson is so little known that operatives at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which sent out a flurry of statements criticizing each successive speaker nominee, were still combing through his record and listening to old recordings of his radio show this morning. “Mike Johnson is Jim Jordan in a sports coat,” a spokesperson, Viet Shelton, told me. “Electing him as speaker would represent how the Republican conference has completely given in to the most extreme fringes of their party.”
The next few weeks will test whether the inexperienced Johnson is in over his head, and just how far to the right Johnson is willing to push his party. “You’re going to see this group work like a well-oiled machine,” Johnson, flanked by dozens of his GOP colleagues, assured reporters after securing the nomination last night. He’ll have plenty of doubters. The new speaker will be leading the same five-vote majority that routinely rebuffed McCarthy, forcing him to rely on Democrats to pass high-stakes legislation.
Congress faces a November 17 deadline to avoid a government shutdown—the result of a five-week extension in funding that ultimately cost McCarthy his job. Johnson has circulated a plan to Republicans that suggested he would support another stopgap measure, for either two or five months, to buy time for the House and Senate to negotiate full-year spending bills.
He’ll also confront immediate pressure to act on the Biden administration’s request for more than $100 billion in aid to Israel and Ukraine. Like Jordan, Johnson has supported aid for Israel but has opposed additional Ukraine funding. “We stand with our ally Israel,” Johnson said last night; he made no mention of Ukraine.
If the GOP holds on to its majority next year, Johnson would have a say in whether the House certifies the presidential winner in 2024. When a reporter asked him last night about his role in helping Trump try to overturn the 2020 election, the Republicans around him, unified and jubilant for the first time in weeks, started to jeer. A few members booed the buzzkill in the press corps. “Shut up!” yelled one lawmaker, Representative Virginia Foxx of North Carolina. Johnson, the conservative without enemies, merely shook his head and smiled. “Next question,” he replied. “Next question.”