After three weeks of infighting over who should lead the lower chamber, House Republicans on Wednesday elected a new Speaker in Rep. Mike Johnson, a social conservative from Louisiana who will be the least experienced House Speaker in more than a century.
The choice triggered a mix of reactions within the party, with some hailing it as a unifying moment and others expressing concerns about his qualifications and controversial stances, including his role in seeking to overturn President Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 election. Still, he mustered the vote of every Republican: the House voted 220 to 209 in favor of Johnson, following 22 days of deliberation, 14 candidates, four nominees, and three floor votes.
While it was uncertain whether he could muster enough votes to secure the gavel, Johnson appeared to have the best chance of any Republican candidate. The House had been in a state of uncertainty and chaos since Oct. 3, when eight rebel conservatives joined Democrats in forcing a vote to oust former Speaker Kevin McCarthy from the position after he worked with Democrats to pass a temporary funding bill to keep the government open.
"Democracy is messy sometimes, but it is our system. This conference that you see, this House Republican majority, is united," Johnson said Tuesday night, flanked by an exuberant conference cheering his name.
Johnson, a lawyer, was first elected to the House in 2016. He gained recognition for his involvement in conservative policy circles and became the chair of the Republican Study Committee in 2019. But if elected, Johnson would be the least experienced Speaker in 140 years, with just four terms in the House and no senior leadership roles or full committee chairmanships under his belt. The lack of experience may pose some challenges, especially given the complexities of the role. Julian Zelizer, a political historian and professor at Princeton University, says that most House Speakers tend to be drawn from senior lawmakers or those in the party leadership who have been in office for some time, rather than rank-and-file members. “The elevation of the least experienced is not usually the strategy for the party,” he says. “It has a big impact. The GOP would elect someone with weak personal ties in the House, lack of institutional knowledge, and without the personal memory of how different things seem to unfold. You also end up with someone who has the least commitment to government as an institution.”
As Speaker, Johnson will need to oversee a large staff and manage a substantial national fundraising apparatus—and he is far from a prolific fundraiser, which is a key responsibility for party leaders. His campaign raised about $1.3 million in the 2022 election cycle, a fraction of the $28 million raised by McCarthy's campaign.
But while Johnson’s lack of experience might pose some challenges, it may also have been what helped him get elected, says Matthew Green, a politics professor at Catholic University who authored a book on the historical role of House Speakers. “It's almost like picking a Supreme Court Justice who has never written any prior decisions,” Green says. “We just don't know what he’s going to be like. I think it's one of the big reasons that he got the nod... because every member and every faction can sort of look at him and see something they like."
(To wit: asked about working with Johnson on spending issues, Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine told CNN that she doesn't know him and was going to Google him.)
Despite being relatively unknown on the national stage or even among other lawmakers, one significant point of contention surrounds Johnson's involvement in efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election results. He led the organization of an amicus brief, signed by 125 House Republicans, supporting a Texas-led lawsuit seeking to intervene in the vote counting in key swing states won by Biden. Asked by a reporter about his role in attempting to overturn the election on Tuesday night, Johnson responded “next question” as Republicans beside him booed.
New York Rep. Pete Aguilar, chair of the Democratic Caucus, railed on Johnson’s efforts to overturn the election results while giving his nominating speech for House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, the Democratic nominee for Speaker. “House Democrats believe that when members of this body voted to reject the results of the 2020 election they forfeited their ability to lead this chamber,” Aguilar said.
An evangelical Christian, Johnson’s stance on various hot-button issues, including abortion, civil rights, and free speech, have also concerned some moderates. Last year, he sponsored legislation that would ban discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity at any institution serving children younger than 10 that received federal funds. His foreign policy positions could also become a divisive issue for him to navigate, as he has expressed opposition to continued funding for the war in Ukraine. (The Biden Administration last week requested $105 billion in funding for Israel, Ukraine, and border security.)
Johnson will also face the intense challenge of how to confront a mid-November deadline to keep the government funded and avert a shutdown, while appeasing the same hard-right conservatives who complicated McCarthy’s term.
Despite these concerns, Johnson's confirmation appears to have quelled the chaos within the House GOP, and his ascension could bring some stability to the divided conference that has hindered legislative progress for three weeks. But the position may come with a steep learning curve for Johnson himself. “The speakership is unique in the amount of skill that's required to do well, and some of that comes from experience,” Green says. “It's through experience that you learn the ins-and-outs of House procedure, you learn more about your colleagues, and you also get to know the dynamics of working with the Senate and with the White House and with the press. Those are things that Speakers have to deal with to a much greater degree than a rank-and-file member.”
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