Mike Johnson might have been an obscure, four-term congressmember before Wednesday, but if Democrats have their way, he will soon be well-known by every American — as an election denier, an anti-abortion extremist and a slasher of Social Security and Medicare.
Johnson hadn’t officially been elected speaker before the Democratic opposition research machinery went full tilt. Democrats have spent the last few days sifting through old shows from Johnson’s time as a podcast host and previously authored editorials in his local newspaper.
They are determined to define Johnson in the public eye before he has a chance to define himself.
Democrats — and aligned research groups — said on Wednesday that they were hurriedly digging into Johnson’s record. There were, as of October 8, 69 episodes of his podcast on Spotify, which Johnson co-hosts with his wife, many of which touch on hot-button political topics. One Democratic operative was quick to spotlight one such episode as indicative of the gold mine they believe is about to be discovered: a June 5 show in which the Johnsons spotlighted an initiative to turn Pride Month into “Fidelity Month.”
“It’s not like there’s any shortage of material when you go looking,” said one official at a top liberal group who was granted anonymity to discuss strategy. “He’s not someone who’s broken through to have a national reputation, but there’s a lot there.”
House speakers are always fodder for the opposition party looking to flip seats. But few, if any, have come into office with a record as little-known as Johnson’s. The congressmember has been in the House since 2017. And rarely during that time period has he been in the spotlight.
Democrats began rolling out talking points minutes into his speakership, attacking him in hopes of retaking the House in 2024.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee sent a memo on “messaging guidance” to House Democrats on Wednesday outlining their strategy.
“House Republicans may be breathing a short-sighted sigh of relief now that they’ve elected a new Speaker,” it read, “but their decision to elevate an anti-abortion extremist who has pushed to gut Social Security and Medicare and who was one of the main architects of the illegal attempt to overturn the 2020 election will lose them the majority in 2024.”
The DCCC added in its dispatch that it “is committed to ensuring that every battleground member of the Republican conference is tied to Speaker Johnson’s” record.
Johnson did not respond to a request for comment.
Still, even with this firepower aimed at the new speaker, Republicans are waving away claims that Johnson could be a liability in 2024. Rep. Dusty Johnson (R-S.D.) was skeptical that Democrats could effectively attack the new speaker as a way to hurt battleground Republican members next year.
“If Democrats think they’re going to beat swing-seat Republicans by tying them to Mike Johnson, good luck,” Dusty Johnson said in an interview. “Johnson is smart, decent and hard-working. He’s not going to be an easy guy to villainize.”
He earned the full-throated endorsement of National Republican Congressional Committee chair Richard Hudson. “I know Mike cares deeply about our conference, understands our majority is the last line of defense against the Democrats, and will work relentlessly with the NRCC to go on offense,” he said in a statement.
But Democrats are already feeling optimistic that Johnson will help them win back the House. Tommy Vietor, a Democratic strategist who worked as a spokesperson for former President Barack Obama, said Johnson will give them “an opportunity to win back some of those moderate seats that we lost in places like New York and California.”
And the messages from DCCC and others were already getting repeated by House Democrats as the speaker vote wrapped up.
“It is just yet another example of the so-called moderates voting for extremism,” Rep. Dan Goldman (D-N.Y.) said in an interview.
It’s not just House Democrats getting in on the act. President Joe Biden’s campaign is also planning to focus on his leading role in attempting to overturn the 2020 election, his support of an abortion ban, and his positions on Social Security and Medicare, according to a person familiar with the campaign’s thinking.
Johnson’s time as a private attorney is a rich target for opposition researchers. Before getting elected to Congress, he worked for the Alliance Defense Fund, a conservative Christian legal advocacy group now known as the Alliance Defending Freedom, and has opposed same-sex marriage and other LGBTQ rights.
Johnson once filed a 2003 lawsuit that argued gay city employees’ partners should be blocked from receiving health care benefits. He authored editorials in his local paper that argued LGBT people shouldn’t be included in the legal definition of employment discrimination, “We don’t give special protections for every person’s bizarre choices.”
But as opposition researchers dig through the archives, Democrats say they have more than enough to point to from his time in Congress. When Roe v. Wade was overturned, Johnson called it a “joyous occasion.” Johnson has also spoken in favor of entitlement reform, which Democrats argue is code for cutting programs like Social Security and Medicare.
Rep. Pete Aguilar called Johnson the “architect of Electoral College objections” in a floor speech on Wednesday. Johnson voted against certifying the 2020 election, and asked other Republican members to sign onto a legal brief in a case challenging the election results in multiple states.
Republicans said efforts by speaker candidates to decertify the 2020 election came up in caucus meetings, but they weren’t disqualifying — much of the Republican conference voted the same way.
“I think it’s really important we get a speaker and move forward,” said Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.), who has been critical of the right flank of the GOP throughout the multi-week process to choose a new speaker. “I’m not electing someone I’m going to marry, I’m not electing someone I’m going to raise children with. I’m electing someone who’s going to lead the conference.”
The party sees him as a particularly ripe target for their messaging to retake the House.