Oct 25, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Democrats race to define Mike Johnson on the campaign trail

House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, left, and Speaker Mike Johnson. Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call Inc. via Getty Images.

Democrats are already looking to newly elected Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) as a potential asset to damage Republicans in swing districts as the 2024 election approaches.

Why it matters: Johnson's lack of national name recognition makes him a blank slate among voters, which both parties are trying to use to their electoral advantage.

What we're hearing: "Because he's been so unvetted, there's going to be like a pop-up cottage industry" to define him, one Democratic strategist working on House races told Axios.

  • "He is a rare and volatile combination of unvetted [and] conservative talk show host. He actually has years of material, freestyle right-wing rhetoric, that nobody has looked under the hood on," the strategist said — even spitballing a possible nickname: "Talkshow Mikey."
  • Abby Curran Howell, the executive director of House Majority PAC, said the Democratic group will "ensure every vulnerable Republican who supported his speakership will be voted out in 2024."
  • "Mike Johnson is Jim Jordan in a sports coat," said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesperson Viet Shelton, referring to the Judiciary Committee chair Democrats were so eager to fight.

Context: A former chair of the Republican Study Committee, Johnson is a staunch conservative who led an amicus brief supporting a lawsuit geared toward overturning the 2020 election.

  • Democrats who studied up on his record ahead of his election Wednesday walked away seeing him as a "more genial Jim Jordan" and someone who will "steer the House to the far right," Axios reported.
  • His right-wing positions on abortion and gay marriage have also been the source of early criticism from Democrats.
  • But Johnson was also able to swiftly pull Republicans out of a political abyss after winning the GOP nomination for speaker Tuesday, ending a three-week speaker vacancy in which some of the House GOP's top leaders failed to unify the conference.

The other side: "Praying for some magical [opposition research] nobody knows about on a new figure no voter has heard of is the height of a political Hail Mary," a Republican strategist working on House races told Axios.

  • The strategist pointed to polling that found Republicans leading on key issues including border security, crime and the economy, saying Democrats "want to distract voters from the state of the country, and this is the latest shiny object, but it's not going to work."
  • Rep. Marc Molinaro (R-N.Y.), who represents a district President Biden won in 2020, praised Johnson's "modesty and common decency" and said Democrats' planned critiques amount to "stale partisan attacks."
  • "When the dust settles, not a single competitive House race has changed," Dan Conston, head of the Republican-aligned Congressional Leadership Fund, said in a statement.
Data: OpenSecrets; Chart: Axios Visuals
Data: OpenSecrets; Chart: Axios Visuals

Zoom in: Another area where Johnson may prove a liability for Republicans on the campaign trail is fundraising.

  • His campaign committee has raised just over half a million dollars so far this cycle and has $1.1 million in cash on hand, according to OpenSecrets — a fraction of the fundraising of other House leaders.
  • By contrast, former Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), Johnson's predecessor, has raised $13.7 million this cycle for his campaign committee alone.
  • House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), who will be competing with Johnson to be speaker come 2025, has brought in $7.8 million.

What we're watching: Ascending to the House speakership could boost Johnson's fundraising, but he "doesn't have any real record of an ability to crisscross the country fundraising for members," said the Democratic strategist.

  • "I think it'll be interesting to see how he picks the pieces up."
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