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Magic Mike

Don’t Know Who Mike Johnson Is? Neither Do Senate Republicans

The upper chamber’s GOP members greeted the new speaker in the House with bemusement—and the need to google him.

Win McNamee/Getty Images
Newly elected House Speaker Mike Johnson

You could be forgiven for not knowing much about Mike Johnson, the newly elected speaker of the House. Most senators, including many Republicans, don’t know much about him, either. For example, Senator Susan Collins, the ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, told a reporter that she had to google him. Senator John Barrasso, the third-highest-ranking GOP senator, said that he primarily knew about Johnson from what he had “read in the paper.”

“I don’t know him,” Senate Minority Whip John Thune said on Wednesday morning. “May have met him, but that’s about it.” After Johnson’s election, Thune struck a more engaged note, saying: “We’re ready to work with him, and he’s ready to work with us.”

Senior Republican aides in the Senate were also bemused by his ascension, noting to this reporter that he seemed nice enough but was a relative unknown to the upper chamber. “Apparently experience isn’t necessary for the speaker job,” said Senator Mitt Romney, noting Johnson’s relative lack of time in Congress. “We’re down to folks who haven’t had leadership or chairmanship roles, which means their administration of the House will be a new experience for them.”

Johnson, the fourth Republican nominee for speaker in three weeks, was narrowly elected to the post on Wednesday. The party-line success of Johnson came after 24 days with a leaderless House, stymying the work of Congress and potentially causing long-term damage to the institution. Johnson is now one of the least experienced speakers in American history, but his ascension was nonetheless met with newfound hope from Republicans.

The socially conservative Louisianan came as close as you can to winning such a high-profile and powerful position by default—his bid primarily benefited from inertia, fatigue, and his mild-mannered demeanor. After this lengthy saga, which kicked off when former Speaker Kevin McCarthy was ousted earlier this month, House Republicans are exhausted by the process of finding a suitable successor.

Indeed, as GOP Senator John Cornyn noted, Johnson was “pretty anonymous.” “Maybe that helped him get elected,” Cornyn told me.

On Wednesday morning, there was a noticeable change in the demeanor of House Republicans, who were practically glowing with optimism ahead of the vote to elect Johnson speaker. Their relief at having found a consensus candidate was palpable. “I think Mike Johnson is probably the best person for this. He’s someone that can pull people together, and he is someone that gets along with every faction,” Representative Robert Aderholt told reporters.

However, other Republicans were more cautious in their assessment. When I asked Representative Frank Lucas whether Johnson would be able to hold his own among Senate leaders with vastly more experience, Lucas said he would demonstrate “restraint” in his response.

“Mike has natural skills in communication. His ability to learn will enable him to move very fast,” Lucas said. When asked whether the fall of McCarthy, and the rise of an even more socially conservative speaker, demonstrated increased power of the hard-right flank of the party, Lucas demurred. “This is a body of individuals, and it’s become more individualistic in the last 20 years. But it’s still a team sport,” Lucas said. “If you burn the building down, you have an obligation to build the next one up.”

Indeed, that factionalization had proved the downfall of previous speaker candidates, including Majority Leader Steve Scalise and Majority Whip Tom Emmer. Scalise was too entrenched in the party establishment for certain Republican hard-liners. House Judiciary Committee Chair Jim Jordan, who suffered through three losing speaker votes on the House floor, was too much of a rabble-rouser for Republicans with an institutionalist bent. Emmer was personally opposed by former President Donald Trump, in no small part because he voted to certify the results of the 2020 presidential election.

Johnson, meanwhile, is a member of leadership—he’s the vice chair of the Republican conference and was previously the chair of the conservative Republican Study Committee—but has only been a member of the House since 2016. He’s deeply conservative, supportive of restrictions for abortion and rights for LGBTQ individuals, and has voted against several major bipartisan bills in recent years. Nonetheless, his amicable persona is far more appealing than Jordan’s penchant for bomb-throwing.

Still, the far-right conservatives who voted to oust McCarthy see Johnson’s ascension as a vindication of their hard-line tactics. “The D.C. cartel was put on notice that business as usual stopped today,” Representative Matt Rosendale crowed to reporters.

Johnson is also a staunch ally of Trump, even serving in his legal defense team during the president’s two impeachment trials. Perhaps most crucially for Trump and his supporters, he is the architect of an amicus brief used by dozens of Republicans to justify their decision to overturn President Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory on January 6, 2021. (The Supreme Court rejected the underlying complaint due to lack of standing and dismissed the amicus brief.)

Johnson had also amplified conspiracies about the results in the wake of the 2020 election. In one tweet from late 2020, he raised suspicions about an increase in mail-in ballots for Joe Biden that year, during the height of the coronavirus pandemic—as compared to Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Representative Ken Buck, who opposed Jordan’s bid, in large part because of his efforts to overturn the 2020 election, argued that Johnson’s role in trying to decertify the Electoral College results was sufficiently different. Johnson’s amicus brief was “appropriate,” Buck said, and “fundamentally different than somebody who is actively involved in moving the protesters from the Mall up here [to the Capitol].”

Buck also insisted that, if placed in a similar position in 2024, Johnson would “do the right thing” with regard to the election results. “Kevin McCarthy voted to decertify, and he was leader of our conference at that time. That’s even scarier,” Buck, who voted to oust McCarthy, said. “I have confidence in Mike to get us through this next election.”

But not all Republicans consider that legacy to be a negative attribute. When Representative Pete Aguilar noted these efforts in his speech nominating Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries for the speakership, GOP Representative Anna Paulina Luna yelled: “Damn right!” (For their part, Democrats are practically giddy that Republicans elected an election-denying opponent of abortion access and LGBTQ rights to the speakership, and are already writing the campaign ads to tie vulnerable members to his leadership.)

On the other side of the chamber, Senator Bill Cassidy, one of seven Republican senators to vote to convict Trump for inciting an insurrection in his second impeachment trial, insisted that Johnson’s ascension was not an indication that the GOP was moving on from the violence of January 6. However, Cassidy argued that the true divide was “between conservatives who wish to govern and the people who are anti-government and are afraid to vote on anything and don’t care to govern.” Johnson, he said, was the former.

“If all we do is focus on flaws we never move forward,” Cassidy said, encapsulating the readiness of Republicans on both sides of the Capitol to get past this ignominious moment in congressional history. “At some point, you’ve got to move ahead.”

There’s also the question of how Johnson will address some of the most pressing issues facing Congress, including funding the government ahead of a November 17 deadline. In a letter to his Republican colleagues earlier this week, Johnson expressed support for passing another stopgap funding measure to avoid a government shutdown and allow for appropriations bills to be negotiated.

“The rank-and-file Johnson had a very specific set of priorities and positions. The question is if that translates into the [speaker] position,” said Republican Senator Thom Tillis. Johnson had opposed the short-term funding measure passed last month that kept the government funded through mid-November, and has been a skeptic of sending additional aid to Ukraine. But with Congress considering aid to Ukraine and Israel in addition to government spending, Johnson’s priorities as speaker may shift.

Ultimately, however, Republican senators believe it’s too soon to tell what a Johnson speakership will look like. “He is so newly elected, I have to confess, I know very little about him,” Senator Lisa Murkowski told me. “We’re certainly glad to know that the uncertainty in the House has been seemingly resolved here.”