Oct 25, 2023 - Politics & Policy

House Democrats are wary of a Mike Johnson speakership

Rep. Mike Johnson. Photo: Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images

House Democrats are bulking up on their knowledge of new Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson, and they're not liking what they've found.

Why it matters: The Louisiana Republican was elected Wednesday afternoon after shoring up support from his party.

  • A relatively junior member of GOP leadership as the vice chair of the Republican Conference,┬áJohnson will almost certainly have to cut deals with Democrats to avoid a government shutdown.

What they're saying: "The consensus [among House Democrats] is that he is a more genial Jim Jordan and plays well with others on his side," one House Democrat told Axios, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

  • But Johnson "is a hardline right winger who is in favor of a national abortion ban and is going to steer the House to the far right," the lawmaker said.
  • "He is not part of the main stream political or legal thought," Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) told Axios. "Truly an aberrant candidate for America, but maybe not for a drowning Republican conference searching for a lifesaver."

The context: Johnson is a former chair of the conservative Republican Study Committee and is well-liked across the GOP's ideological spectrum.

  • "He likely gets there," said one moderate House Republican. "He's too likable even for this group [the House Republican conference] to stab."

Zoom in: Some Democrats spent the morning giving each other a crash course on Johnson over text, according to two Democrats.

  • One lawmaker argued in the text chain that, because Johnson is less outwardly objectionable than someone like Jim Jordan, it makes his prospective speakership even more menacing.
  • Another described him as an "'aw shucks' version of Jim Jordan."

Zoom in: Johnson's efforts to overturn the 2020 election as the architect of an amicus brief supporting the Texas v. Pennsylvania lawsuit are of particular concern to some Democrats.

  • "Mike Johnson is Jim Jordan with a bar card," said House Oversight Committee ranking member Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), a former Jan. 6 committee member.
  • "Having served on Judiciary with him, I will grant that he has better manners than Jim Jordan and Matt Gaetz, but I've never seen him disagree with them on anything related to the defense of American constitutional democracy and freedom," Raskin said.
  • Cohen, who led the Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution with Johnson for six years, said they "never saw common ground on voting rights, women's issues ... LGBTQI issues or the legality of the 2020 election."

Yes, but: Johnson, on his fourth term in the House and unknown to many of his colleagues across the aisle, may have the opportunity to reshape his image.

  • "I have had very little interaction with Johnson," said one senior Democrat, "so like many members I have little information upon which I could make a judgment."
  • A senior aide to a moderate Democrat said of Johnson, simply: "Who?"

What we're watching: In the end, Johnson will have to navigate the same dynamic that led to the ouster of former Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).

  • Any spending bill will need to be able to pass the Democrat-controlled Senate in order to become law, and therefore Johnson will have to work across the aisle or risk a government shutdown.
  • Asked if Johnson is the kind of guy who can cut a deal with Democrats on spending, one Democrat said: "He needs to."

Axios has reached out to Johnson's office for comment.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect additional developments.

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