Much of the media has regarded Mike Johnson’s two-day-old speakership as something of an accident of history.
But the record shows Johnson’s ascent was no accident. It was the culmination of a deliberate series of moves aimed at positioning himself for greater power.
Since Johnson’s first run for Congress, the now four-term Louisianan has always ensured he is in line ideologically with the most conservative faction of the House GOP — without going to their tactical extremes.
That ultimately made him a palatable choice to fellow Republicans, who unanimously elected him speaker Wednesday after 22 fractious days on Capitol Hill.
“He’s the right man for the job, and I have faith in him,” said Rep. Mike Garcia (R-Calif.), who is aligned with the more moderate wing of the conference. “He’s a good man, he’s a good Christian, and he’s going to do an excellent job at this.”
A sudden opportunity
Johnson was still a first-term state lawmaker when a vacancy opened in the northwest Louisiana House district then held by GOP Rep. John Fleming, a charter member of the hard-right House Freedom Caucus. Fleming was among several Republicans who jumped into the race to succeed retiring Sen. David Vitter, and Johnson moved decisively to pick up Fleming’s baton.
Johnson ran with the Freedom Caucus imprimatur and a six-figure donation from its PAC, as well as backing from Citizens United and the Club for Growth — giving him a crucial leg up over the four other Republicans in the race.
But once sworn in, Johnson made an unexpected pivot: He frequently attended Freedom Caucus meetings but never actually joined the group. This was at a moment when it was solidifying its reputation as a thorn in leadership’s side, helping to complicate the ultimately failed effort to push health care legislation and other parts of President Donald Trump’s agenda through the House.
Taking down a veteran
Johnson instead set his sights on a different perch: leading the Republican Study Committee, the sprawling conservative policy group that counted the majority of the GOP conference among its members.
Ahead of his second term, Johnson took on Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.), a veteran pol who had served a decade in Congress and spent 25 years in California state politics before that. Johnson leapt into the race early, and where McClintock was openly critical of Freedom Caucus tactics, Johnson was more accommodating, suggesting that the two groups could work in tandem.
After Johnson won, McClintock told Roll Call, “The fact of the matter is he completely out campaigned me during the recess.”
The RSC chairmanship gave Johnson an early opportunity to interact with a wide variety of members, hosting weekly member lunches and directing a sizable policy and communications staff — experience that set him up for his next step up the ladder, an unopposed run for conference vice chairman in 2020.
The quiet conservative
Throughout his House career, Johnson walked a careful line — interacting closely with the hard-liners and embracing their strategic objectives without engaging in their divisive tactics. He has backed drastic federal spending cuts and strict abortion restrictions but never opposed a GOP rule or threatened to vacate the speakership.
Meanwhile, he was building his credibility as a Trump loyalist, culminating in his late-2020 effort to rally Republicans behind a court brief arguing for the Supreme Court to intervene in presidential vote-counting.
Johnson told the Daily Beast in 2018 that he strived to maintain ties with both the Freedom Caucus and the party leadership: “I was one of those unique and unusual circumstances where I had close friendships and trusted relationships on all sides of the conference.”
That continued as the hard-liners moved against Speaker Kevin McCarthy this year. Johnson voted against Ukraine funding and the Sept. 30 spending stopgap. But he never once cast a vote against the conference nominee for speaker, and he backed McCarthy’s debt-limit deal — giving him credibility as a team player.
Fleming, his 4th District predecessor, praised Johnson’s political skills in an interview and said his ascent bodes well for conservative policymaking.
“He’s a very talented guy,” he said, adding, “I think he saw along the way the potential to move up in leadership, and like any good politician, he’s going to take advantage of an opportunity.”
The Louisianan has long ensured he is in line ideologically with the hard right without going to tactical extremes.