The rise of the staunchly conservative Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.) to the House Speakership has united the GOP conference but may alienate moderate voters and imperil the Republican majority — a political opening Democrats are racing to exploit.
While House Republicans are hailing Johnson as a unifying force for their fractured party, the Speaker’s unique brand of evangelical conservatism places him at the far right of the GOP spectrum. And Democrats view him as something else entirely: a conservative “extremist” who reflects the right wing’s control of the GOP just as much of the country is growing weary of congressional polarization.
With that in mind, Democrats are rushing to highlight the track record of the previously obscure Speaker, framing Johnson as a rigid fundamentalist whose right-wing views on hot-button issues such as abortion, gun control and gay rights are out of touch with those of Americans at large.
The critics are also quick to call attention to Johnson’s role as a leading champion of former President Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election — an issue with outsized implications in a presidential cycle where Trump is the clear front-runner to win the GOP nomination.
“Johnson is like [Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio] with a bar card,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), who led Trump’s second impeachment following the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. “He’s an anti-choice, anti-gay, anti-gun safety, pro-Trump extremist.”
Across the aisle, Republicans are rushing to Johnson’s defense, portraying their newly tapped leader as a trusted, if low-key, figure who is uniquely positioned to ease tensions within the warring GOP conference after the ouster of former Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) by his most restive conservative critics.
“One of the other members made the point [that] they couldn’t think of five people in [the] conference that didn’t like Mike Johnson,” Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) said.
“He’s a person of absolute personal integrity,” Cole added. “You can disagree with him on the issues, but I don’t know anybody [who] has ever doubted his character or questioned his word once it’s given.”
The conflicting portraits from the opposing sides have underlined the high stakes in the mad rush to define the public image of a little-known lawmaker who has quickly become the face of the GOP on Capitol Hill.
The promotion marks a sharp transition for the mild-mannered Johnson, who has largely maintained a quiet presence since arriving in Congress in 2017, even as he’s risen into the leadership ranks and emerged as a key Trump defender.
His meteoric ascension to the Speakership is bringing fresh attention to his previous record as an attorney championing far-right causes.
Prior to his arrival in Washington, Johnson was on the front lines of the conservative legal battles against abortion and gay rights, once warning that the legalization of same-sex marriage would mark the end of American democracy.
“He’s a MAGA extremist,” Raskin said. “He [just] has better manners.”
In his first speech before being sworn in as Speaker, Johnson sought to deflate some of those concerns, praising the value of bipartisanship and offering warm remarks for House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.).
But he also nodded to the complaints of those Republicans who had toppled McCarthy — a disgruntled band of largely right-wing lawmakers frustrated by their lack of influence.
“The job of the Speaker of the House is to serve the whole body, and I will, but I’ve made a commitment to my colleagues here that this Speaker’s office is going to be known for decentralizing the power here,” Johnson said.
“My office is going to be known for members being more involved and having more influence in our processes, in all the major decisions that are made here.”
With Democrats in control of both the Senate and White House, however, it’s unclear how Johnson intends to satisfy restive conservatives while also working across the aisle to adopt must-pass legislation to extend government funding, which expires in the middle of November. And Democrats have made clear they see Johnson being heavily influenced by the MAGA-aligned wing of the GOP.
“His record is very right-wing, archconservative, anti-choice, anti-LGBT. He represents the hard right of the hard right, and that is apparently where the center of gravity is in the Republican conference, with a big dose of the big lie for good measure,” said Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), nodding to Johnson’s efforts to help Trump stay in office after losing the 2020 election.
With a law degree from Louisiana State University, Johnson has a long record of championing a host of prominent conservative causes.
Before entering the House, much of that work came from his perch as an attorney and spokesman for the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a conservative Christian legal advocacy group.
During that time he sued over numerous state and local laws seeking to block same-sex marriage, halt any benefits going to same-sex partners and criminalize same-sex sexual activity. In an amicus brief to the Supreme Court, ADF defended a Texas law banning gay sex, arguing it was necessary to protect public health.
He has worked to close abortion clinics in his home state of Louisiana and twice defended the state’s same-sex marriage ban.
In op-eds penned before he was in Congress, Johnson warned same-sex marriage would lead other groups to push to extend marriage rights — including those who wish to marry a pet.
And in Congress he’s sponsored legislation that would place federal limits on abortion, co-sponsoring a bill that would ban abortion past 20 weeks of gestation.
After arriving on Capitol Hill, Johnson gained some early attention for his role in defending Trump during his first impeachment. And more recently, Johnson was the ringleader behind a House GOP amicus brief backing a Texas lawsuit contesting the 2020 election results, which he said prompted an appreciative call from Trump. His efforts included amplifying baseless allegations in the weeks after the 2020 election that voting machines had been hacked.
He’s also been a vocal member of the House Judiciary Committee, railing against the ongoing prosecutions of Trump.
Still, it’s not clear that Johnson’s policy positions were a major factor as the House GOP wrestled with who should replace McCarthy — a humiliating, weeks-long process that ended abruptly in Johnson’s election with unanimous GOP support.
“I think the reason Mike Johnson was able to come forward and lead the conference and now the House was because he’s not controversial. He’s not been in the middle of the cultural wars. He’s not been in the middle of the internal wars. He’s just a really good guy that everyone believes they can get along with and trust,” said Rep. John Duarte (R-Calif.).
Rep. Dusty Johnson (R-S.D.) cautioned against jumping to conclusions about a disruption kicked off by eight GOP lawmakers and noted Congress has numerous high-stakes battles ahead.
Still, he praised Johnson as someone who is focused on steering clear of divisive political rhetoric in his dealings with colleagues, noting he formed the Honor and Civility Caucus during his first year in Congress alongside then-Rep. Charlie Crist (D-Fla.).
“That’s a pretty remarkable thing for him to do — to come to Congress and spend some capital on talking about the importance of civility,” Dusty Johnson said.
“When I came in two years later, he came to my office, sat down with me, talked to me about the importance of civility and asked me to join the Civility Caucus,” he added. “That shows you where his heart is at.”