Mike Johnson, the new Republican speaker of the House, is not exactly a well-known figure. When his GOP colleagues made him second in line to the presidency last week, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, was so unfamiliar with him that she told a reporter she would have to Google him.
All that will likely change between now and next November.
Johnson is a Trump-loving, election-denying, abortion ban-supporting, gay rights-opposing, climate change-rejecting, and conspiracy-believing conservative. If House Democrats are smart, they will turn Mike Johnson into a household name — though not in a good way.
On practically every issue on which House Republicans will be vulnerable in 2024, Johnson takes an extreme, maximalist position.
Republicans chose Johnson because, let’s face it, they ran out of options. Kevin McCarthy was fired. Jim Jordan was rejected. And Tom Emmer barely lasted four hours as speaker-designate. But in selecting Johnson, Republicans made one small error — they failed to vet him.
If they had, they’d have discovered that he was Democrats’ dream speaker candidate. On practically every issue on which House Republicans will be vulnerable in 2024, Johnson takes an extreme, maximalist position. For any GOP candidates in a close race, and especially the 18 House Republicans running in congressional districts President Biden won in 2020, he will be a political albatross.
Let’s start with a simple example: safeguarding American democracy. Johnson wasn’t just an accomplice in Trump’s efforts to steal the 2020 election; he was, as The New York Times put it, “an architect” of GOP objections to certifying election results in the House of Representatives. According to Politico, he was “the leading voice” in the House “in support of a fateful position: that the GOP should rally around Donald Trump and object to counting electoral votes submitted by at least a handful of states won by Joe Biden.”
While many members supported Trump for cynical reasons, Johnson was a true believer, even signing a amicus brief in support of Texas’ lawsuit to invalidate election results in Pennsylvania, Georgia, Michigan and Wisconsin.
If House Democrat challengers want to run on the message that their GOP opponents are a threat to democracy, they can point to their vote to make Johnson speaker. Every GOP House member who voted for Johnson effectively endorsed his efforts to disenfranchise tens of millions of American voters, or at the very least that’s how Democratic candidates will portray it.
What if Democratic candidates instead want to emphasize the GOP’s support for abortion bans? Johnson has given them plenty of material.
With a razor-thin five-seat majority, Republicans already faced a difficult path to holding on to the House.
He said of the Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, “Many of us have been working towards this day our entire adult lives, and it is a joyous occasion.” He declared, “There is no right to abortion in the Constitution; there never was,” and called abortion a “holocaust.” One can imagine that women in competitive House districts will disagree.
Though Johnson has said that he will not push Congress to pass a federal abortion ban, he previously co-sponsored legislation that would place nationwide limits on access to abortion services. Voters may not know that yet, but that fact undoubtedly will find its way into Democratic attacks ads next fall.
Johnson has even blamed school shootings on abortion, as well as no-fault divorce and the teaching of evolution. Indeed, it seems Johnson has blamed everything for gun violence other than guns themselves. In the wake of last week’s deadly mass shooting in Maine that left 18 people dead, Johnson said the real problem “is the human heart. It’s not guns.” It begs the question: Do Americans, which have by far the most gun violence in the world, have defective hearts … or perhaps too easy access to guns?
What if you happen to be a member of, or an ally to, the LGTBQ+ community? Democrats have attack ads for you, too! Johnson has called same-sex marriages “counterfeit legal arrangements” pushed by “radical homosexual advocacy groups.” As a lawyer for a conservative religious organizations, he twice went to court to defend Louisiana’s gay marriage ban.
Oh, and there’s one more: As The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent wrote last week, Johnson has promoted the racist “great replacement” theory, which intimates that Democrats want to replace white voters with immigrants of color. Democrats want to “turn all these illegals into voters for their side,” he has claimed, and he has also accused Democrats of wanting the “destruction of our country at the expense of our own people.”
Democrats already have a head start on defining Johnson as an extremist.
No matter the issue, Johnson has taken positions that are both far outside the mainstream and that Democrats have already used to mobilize their voters.
With a razor-thin five-seat majority, Republicans already faced a difficult path to holding on to the House. Democrats are already near-guaranteed to pick up a seat in Alabama after the Supreme Court forced the state to create a second, majority-black district. Similar rulings in Georgia and ongoing cases in Louisiana and Florida could add another 2-3 seats to the Democratic side of the ledger. (While Republicans are poised to pick up a number of seats from GOP-led gerrymandering in North Carolina, that will likely be canceled out by new maps being drawn in blue New York.)
So, with all else being equal, Republicans have a very real chance of entering the 2024 campaign season essentially tied with Democrats. Now their most vulnerable members, in districts won by Biden, face the added challenge of having to defend their votes in support of Johnson for speaker.
Ironically, though vulnerable Republicans voted against Jordan because they worried about his track record, Johnson’s vast paper trail of infelicitous statements and policy positions — and him being largely unknown — might make him a worse speaker for those Republicans. Democrats already have a head start on defining Johnson as an extremist, and those efforts will only pick up steam as we approach Election Day 2024.
So while Republicans may have, for now, ended their very public and very embarrassing speaker fight, in selecting Johnson they have created for themselves a larger set of political problems.
Michael A. Cohen, a columnist for MSNBC and a fellow with the Eurasia Group Foundation, writes the political newsletter Truth and Consequences. He has been a columnist at The Boston Globe, The Guardian and Foreign Policy, and he is the author of three books, the most recent being “Clear and Present Safety: The World Has Never Been Better and Why That Matters to Americans.”