HomeTop StoriesHow Mike Johnson went from little-known to House speaker in 24 hours

How Mike Johnson went from little-known to House speaker in 24 hours

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Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.) shakes hands with colleagues in the House Chamber during votes for House Speaker on Wednesday. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Just hours after securing the Republican nomination for House speaker, Majority Whip Tom Emmer (R-Minn.) walked into a conference meeting Tuesday evening and bluntly informed his colleagues that he knew how to count votes — and that he knew he didn’t have them — before exiting the room and wading through a throng of reporters in a fit of frustration.

“Emmer’s done,” GOP staffers in the hallway murmured to one another. He was the third speaker nominee in less than two weeks to bow out of running to lead the most polemical and fractious GOP House conference in recent memory.

Confused, hungry and exhausted, lawmakers pondered their dwindling options in the muggy, windowless meeting room. How could they explain this to their constituents, Rep. Marcus J. Molinaro (R-N.Y.), a swing-district freshman with a faded New York accent, stood up and queried the room. He laid into colleagues who had questioned Emmer hours earlier in what witnesses described as “a public flogging” of the Minnesotan, telling his fellow Republicans to stop the purity tests for their speaker nominee — particularly on an issue on which there is as much national consensus as same-sex marriage. Molinaro accused Republicans who lambasted Emmer of being cruel to gay and lesbian Americans, some of whom, he suggested, worked in their offices. If they didn’t let go of the quest to find a perfect nominee, he said they would never unite around a Republican speaker, according to people familiar with the debate.

They also couldn’t start the process over, Molinaro argued, and have to explain to their constituents that they still hadn’t picked a speaker. Holding an immediate vote in conference for the person who came in second to Emmer was the only alternative, Molinaro said. Many conservatives rolled their eyes at Molinaro’s speech, but it helped pull other Republicans in swing districts along, and rallied weary members to break the impasse.

Less than 24 hours later, Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.) became the newly elected speaker of the House. The remarkable turn of events for Johnson — a relatively unknown, ultraconservative lawmaker — was the result of a confluence of fatigue, luck and his lack of enemies.

The evangelical policy wonk’s name had been swirling as a long-shot candidate for several weeks. But in the absence of other viable options — and in search of a compromise between influential leaders who had failed to clinch the speakership, but still held sway — Johnson ascended to second in line to the presidency. But the true test for the new speaker lies ahead. With little dealmaking experience, he will have to steer an unruly conference away from a potential government shutdown, field impending requests to aid Israel and Ukraine, and try to grow — or at least not lose — the GOP’s razor-thin majority in next year’s elections.

This account of Johnson’s rise and the uncharted path forward for a fractious House Republican conference is based on conversations with more than two dozen Republican lawmakers, aides and consultants, most of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.

Johnson’s swift ascent to speaker designate came about over plates of lukewarm spaghetti and meatballs. After lawmakers agreed to an expedited nomination process, Johnson first had to best four other men who thought they had what it took to fill the vacancy. In the first round of voting, Johnson garnered 85 votes, pushing out Rep. Charles J. “Chuck” Fleischmann (R-Tenn.). On the second ballot, Johnson’s vote count rose to 97, eliminating Rep. Roger Williams (R-Tex.) from consideration and prompting Rep. Mark Green (R-Tenn.) to end his bid. Johnson won the third ballot over Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Fla.) — 128 to 29 — but 44 lawmakers had held out their support for other candidates, one of whom surprisingly finished in second place. Forty-three of those votes went to Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who had been ousted as speaker 21 days earlier.

Like a jilted lover, McCarthy had been unable to entirely let go of the powerful speaker’s perch. He continued to hold news conferences after he became the first speaker ever removed by a House vote. He squatted in the speaker’s office in the weeks after losing his title, publicly bemoaned “the crazy eight” Republicans who supported his ouster, and never closed the door on the efforts to draft him back into the job.

Some of the 43 people who voted for McCarthy on Tuesday evening saw it as “a way to poke at Matt Gaetz,” the Florida Republican who led the effort to oust McCarthy, Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.) said. But others suspected a more nefarious scheme to return McCarthy to power was in motion, according to lawmakers in the room.

As members moved toward abbreviating the conference election process Tuesday in the interest of time, McCarthy consistently expressed objections to the suggested adjustments. After Emmer, who McCarthy backed for speaker, dropped out, Molinaro made a motion to skip the secret balloting and move directly to a roll-call vote for Johnson, who had come in second place to Emmer.

“That’s not how you elect a speaker,” McCarthy lunged forward and yelled, according to people familiar with the deliberations. He protested again when another member asked if the conference could waive the rule requiring a candidate forum and move straight to the election. Meanwhile, a groundswell of support for McCarthy was threatening to disrupt Johnson’s momentum. During the candidate forum later that night, freshman Rep. John S. Duarte (R-Calif.) made the case for writing in McCarthy’s name and asked the five speaker candidates to follow suit.

“I wanted to show that Kevin McCarthy is still, by many of our assessments, the legitimate speaker of the House — and the eight people breaking with conference to cause this chaos is not a legitimate form of running our conference,” Duarte said on Friday, while adding that Johnson was going to be “a great speaker.”

Rep. Trent Kelly (R-Miss.) subsequently praised McCarthy but admonished McCarthy’s supporters that the former speaker need to decide whether he was running for his old job or not, according to people in the room.

It only became clear that McCarthy was pulling nearly every write-in vote after Rep. Drew Ferguson (R-Ga.) — a loyal ally of Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.), who was the conference’s first speaker designate before dropping out — noted that the number of “other” votes had risen from 31 on the first ballot to 34 on the second, and demanded to know who those votes were for. The room was stunned, according to people familiar with the deliberations, when GOP conference chair Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) revealed that McCarthy had received all but one of the “other” votes; the last one went to Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), the conference’s second speaker-designate, who was forced out by over 100 Republicans after he was unable to win the speakership after three failed House floor votes. Lawmakers looked toward McCarthy and Jordan, who were sitting near each other. The former speaker just stared down at his phone, according to a person briefed on the meeting. Green stood up and said it was clear to him that some people were “playing games.”

Meanwhile, an unworkable and quickly panned plan was being whispered about: McCarthy and Jordan serving together in a some kind of “co-speaker” arrangement. Some members began thinking McCarthy was behind it. There is some “swampy s—” going on, in the words of some Johnson backers.

“Some members are talking about it,” McCarthy told reporters when asked if there was any momentum to the co-speaker idea.

“It was Kevin McCarthy’s antics,” Rep. Ralph Norman (R-S.C.) said of why Republicans rallied around Johnson. “He tried to prevent Mike from getting a majority.”

McCarthy’s moment of redemption never arrived, but the late wave of enthusiasm for him provided Johnson with a clear blueprint of which factions of the party he still needed to win over. Johnson’s reputation as humble and well-liked, along with his deeply conservative bona fides, made it easier to smooth over concerns about him than it was for previous speaker candidates.

House Speaker Mike Johnson used faith in campaign against gay rights

At one point during this process, Rep. Kelly Armstrong (R-N.D.) said he went through the list of all 221 House Republicans to figure out “who doesn’t have four enemies” — the number of Republicans a speaker candidate could lose and still be elected through Republicans’ narrow majority. Johnson and Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.) were the only two he could think of, he noted.

Johnson met and talked one-on-one with House Republicans after he won the nomination. That included the three lawmakers — Reps. Mark Amodei (R-Nev.), French Hill (R-Ark.) and Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) — who voted “present” during a roll-call vote to gauge whether Republicans would support Johnson on the floor. They eventually were swayed into Johnson’s corner.

He also met with Molinaro. The New York Republican — who had voted against Jordan when it was clear he did not have the votes to become speaker — spoke with Johnson about his track record of remarks, op-eds and bills criticizing the LGBTQ+ community just hours after Molinaro rebuked his colleagues for forcing Emmer out of the race because he voted in support of same-sex marriage.

Johnson reassured Molinaro that he would no longer represent just his conservative Louisiana district, according to a person familiar with the conversation. Instead, Johnson continued, he would represent the entire Republican conference and protect vulnerable swing-district incumbents like Molinaro. Molinaro went on to support Johnson on the House floor, and was chosen to escort Johnson into the chamber once he was elected, which vulnerable Republicans considered a sign that the ultra conservative new speaker viewed them as part of the team.

He also spoke with lawmakers who were absent Tuesday night, including Rep. Andrew R. Garbarino (R-N.Y.). Johnson assured him that the state and local income tax deduction, which Republicans eviscerated in their 2017 tax law, “must be addressed in any tax bill the House considers,” according to Garbarino — a top priority for him and two other New York Republicans who blocked Jordan from becoming speaker. Garbarino endorsed Johnson ahead of the floor vote.

Many Republican lawmakers remarked on how modest and easygoing Johnson is. However, one lawmaker surmised that they had never exchanged harsh words with him only because they had never engaged in substantive policy or political debate with the Louisiana lawmaker. Another Republican noted the first time they ever spoke to Johnson was when he launched his speaker campaign over the weekend, but the conversation was cordial and “very basic.”

“It’s hard to get to know somebody in one phone call,” the Republican lawmaker said, who has since lambasted the rushed process to elect a speaker that prevented them from fully vetting his controversial record.

Republicans say there are pros and cons to Johnson being relatively unknown. One pro, for vulnerable incumbents, is that he is not a known entity, like Jordan, to independent voters who dislike former president Donald Trump and his MAGA movement. But Johnson is also unknown as a fundraiser, having raised barely $450,000 through his leadership PAC to donate to colleagues since launching it seven years ago. McCarthy, who is often described as having an unmatched ability to haul in millions, has telegraphed to multiple people that he will donate funds to Republican colleagues as Johnson works to get his own footing.

Johnson, whom his peers predict might be the weakest speaker in recent history, also lacks close allies on Capitol Hill, unlike McCarthy and previous speakers. Republicans have yet to hear any plans for how he will bring lawmakers into the fold, but have been given assurances that decisions will be made by members, rather than the speaker.

Scalise was Johnson’s mentor when he first arrived in Washington in 2017. They were never particularly close, but Scalise is closer to him than any other member of leadership. Scalise, a fellow Louisianian, is expected to step into the power vacuum McCarthy has left, given Johnson’s lack of experience, and be one of the most powerful majority leaders.

Moderate Republicans, who doggedly opposed Jordan for speaker because of his track record as a combative hard-liner and election denier, suddenly dropped those concerns about Johnson despite the similarities in their voting records. As they near the deadline when government funding runs out in mid-November, they made the calculation that a government shutdown would be worse for their reelections than a conservative speaker, especially in an election year when Trump is likely to be on the top of the Republican ticket and Democrats’ main focus — not Johnson.

Some members, however, privately raised those fears to Johnson during their brief meetings. One vulnerable Republican asked Johnson not to put up for a vote any extreme amendments to the half dozen appropriation bills the conference aims to pass over the next month. This member also asked to alleviate pressure on freshman members by not making them vote on any controversial abortion bills. Johnson has co-sponsored a number of antiabortion bills, including one last year that would ban most abortions after 15 weeks.

The speed of Johnson’s election, which prevented spending much time poring over his record, have left some Republicans alarmed at what reporters and researchers have already unearthed. Others view his relative anonymity and lack of relationships as an opportunity.

“It’s a great opportunity. Think about it. He’s a blank canvas to everyone else,” one moderate Republican said. “He has the capacity to now build up his reputation and I think he’s suited to kind of build it by holding us together, not forcing us into things we don’t want to do.”

Other moderates and governing-focused Republicans echoed that sentiment. They consider Johnson more malleable than McCarthy. Johnson — who told Republicans he met with that he has an “open heart, open mind” — knows he must decide how to spend his political currency and whether to use it to fulfill promises he’s made to lawmakers.

“If he truly believes that only Republicans, as a competent majority can move that open heart, open mind to a more free country then he has to keep the majority by listening to us. Period. There is no other option. So he only has one opportunity, that he should fully recognize, and that’s making sure that he’s paying attention to all the different groups that are within the Republican Party, and who we represent,” one centrist Republican said.

Some are holding him to his word. After Johnson met with several members of the Republican Main Street Caucus, according to one person familiar with the meeting, the lawmakers wrote down the promises Johnson made and sent them to him directly, a marked difference from when holdouts against McCarthy’s speakership in January claimed he made promises that neither group wrote down.

Johnson, however, will only have so much control over shaping his image. On Wednesday, after his triumphant win on the House floor, the eight GOP members who voted to oust McCarthy took credit for replacing him with Johnson. Gaetz argued that the new speaker was just the latest sign that Trumpism was making gains in the halls of Congress. As lawmakers walked back to their offices on Thursday in the unseasonably warm October sun after Johnson’s second day as speaker, some of them cheerily sung “MAGA Mike’s” praises.

“I call him MAGA Mike Johnson — he’s all about Trump, Trump’s all about him so I’m very pleased that he stepped up and was able to get the support of the entire conference,” said Rep. Troy E. Nehls (R-Tex.), who suggested installing Trump as speaker. “I think he could probably be speaker for a very long time … Oh, he’s got a tough job though, too. We gotta pray for him. I don’t know how he does it. It’s an impossible job.”

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