Democrats are seeking to make new Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) a boogeyman going into next year’s general election, citing his conservative voting record in the House.
Following Johnson’s election Wednesday, President Biden’s reelection campaign blasted out a fundraising email, calling Johnson “a Trump lackey.” Meanwhile, the House Democratic campaign arm sent messaging guidance, referring to Johnson as “Jim Jordan in a sports coat.”
Even in Virginia, the state Democratic party warned that Johnson’s election makes the state’s Legislature elections next month “more important.”
The party is betting Johnson’s ardent support of former President Trump and record on issues like same-sex marriage, abortion and overturning the 2020 election results will backfire on swing and independent voters.
“MAGA Mike certainly gives us the necessary tools to put in our toolbox to be able to build a case,” said Antjuan Seawright, a Democratic strategist.
Before Wednesday morning, when House Republicans began to seriously consider Johnson as a Speaker contender, the Louisiana Republican was an unknown figure to many of his fellow lawmakers and the majority of Americans.
But since becoming House Speaker, in what can surely be described as a meteoric rise, Johnson’s record has been on full display. Johnson was a leader in drafting an amicus brief supporting a Texas lawsuit that contested the 2020 presidential election results, making the congressman a key figure in Republican efforts to overturn the election.
Johnson is also considered a key ally in the anti-abortion movement, supporting legislation that limited the procedure, including the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, the Protecting Pain-Capable Unborn Children From Late-Term Abortions Act and the Heartbeat Protection Act of 2021. Additionally, Johnson has also supported proposals that would make cuts to Social Security and Medicare.
Democrats have also hit Johnson for his support of former President Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election results.
“The fact that there is an election denier now as Speaker of the House shows that democracy is still facing a tremendous attack in this country,” said Colorado Secretary of State Jana Griswold, who also serves as chair of the Democratic Association of Secretaries of State.
“I don’t think that any member of Congress who is Republican who voted for him can run away from the fact that they elevated extremism in this country,” she said.
It’s not a new strategy for the opposing political party to try to make the House Speaker a liability for candidates. Republicans famously featured former Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in various ads attacking Democratic candidates.
“I think the Republicans did a great job, to their credit, of trying to define Speaker Pelosi and others in leadership roles previously and I think we missed an opportunity to return the favor,” Seawright said. “With him being not as defined among voters and constituencies across the country, I think it’s a great time for us to define not only who he is and what he stood but who he stands with and who stands against.”
Every House Republican stood with Johnson when they voted for him to be Speaker on Wednesday, including Rep. Mike Lawler (R-N.Y.). The New York congressman is facing an uphill reelection bid in the state’s 17th congressional district, which has been deemed a toss-up. As Lawler cast his vote for Johnson, one Democratic lawmaker yelled “bye-bye” in the chamber. Lawler said afterward that Democrats would have “found fault” with whomever he supported for speaker.
“The people in my district understand who I am,” the congressman said.
But the work of tying Johnson to Lawler and other New York Republicans, many of whom are also in competitive seats, is already being done. On Wednesday, the group Courage for America highlighted Johnson’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election results in an ad targeting the state’s House GOP delegation. The ad targets Lawler along with New York Reps. Nick LaLota, Andrew Garbarino, George Santos, Anthony D’Esposito, Nicole Malliotakis, Marc Molinaro, Elise Stefanik, Brandon Williams, Nick Langworthy and Claudia Tenney.
“Any sort of ‘oh are they moderate?’ Or ‘oh, are they trying to walk a fine line or thread a needle’ — that goes all out the window when you have someone like Mike Johnson as your recently elevated speaker,” said one Democratic strategist.
“It’s full on a far-right conference pushing a far-right agenda,” the strategist added.
But Republicans say it’s too soon to tell how much of a liability Johnson will be for vulnerable candidates.
“It really depends on what happens next,” said Ron Bonjean, a veteran House Republican strategist. “While you had the eight hard-right Republicans led by Matt Gaetz, who caused this month-long shutdown of the House, you’ll now have centrist members that are going to hold Johnson’s feet to the fire and make sure he doesn’t go too far to the right.”
“Watch that very closely because he could have a motion to vacate instigated by those 20 who did not want Jim Jordan to be Speaker,” Bonjean said.
Meanwhile, the House Republicans’ campaign arm is projecting confidence heading into what is expected to be a tight contest for the lower chamber’s majority.
“Republicans will grow the majority under Speaker Johnson by weaponizing extreme Democrats’ dangerous policies on the border, crime and economy against them,” NRCC spokesman Will Reinart said.
Johnson said in an interview with conservative talk show host Sean Hannity on Fox News on Thursday that he thinks Republicans will change the rules surrounding the motion to vacate the chair.
Other Republicans point to what many have called Johnson’s mild manner, even-keeled temperament.
“He’s just a very normal, early 2000s Republican,” said one GOP strategist. “This is like a Mitch McConnell-era Republican. So this MAGA Mike tagline they’ve given him just isn’t accurate.”
The strategist pointed to Hannity’s interview with Johnson as proof of his stances. In the interview, Johnson said the U.S. could not allow Russian President Vladimir Putin to win in Ukraine and said the legality of same-sex marriage was settled in the Supreme Court in 2015. On abortion, the speaker said there is no national consensus on how to handle abortion at the federal level.
“None of this out of the mainstream,” the strategist said. “Now we have a Speaker who is not being held hostage by the far right and we have some leeway to appeal to more moderate voters.
Democrats push back on the notion that Johnson is in any way moderate.
“At some point, the makeup will wear off,” Seawright said. “And the only way it wears off quickly is if we actually present the case to the American people about who people really are and what they stand for.”
“When you look at his political report card, it doesn’t represent his classroom posture,” he added.
Despite calls to do away with the motion to vacate, some Republicans aren’t looking too far ahead into the future given the twists and turns surrounding the speakership seen this year.
“The jury is still out on how long Speaker Johnson’s tenure is actually going to last,” Bonjean said.