Rep. Mike Johnson, a relatively inexperienced Louisiana Republican who fought to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election, was elected speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday, ending weeks of leaderless chaos that followed the Oct. 3 ouster of Bakersfield Rep. Kevin McCarthy.
Johnson’s ascension to the speaker’s chair cements a fiercely pro-Trump, hard-line faction as the face of the national GOP. The speaker of the House is second in line, after the vice president, to fill any presidential vacancy.
The vote was 220-209, with House Republicans voting unanimously for Johnson and all Democrats present backing Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries of New York.
The outcome thrusts Johnson, a 51-year-old former conservative talk radio host now in his fourth term in Congress, into the national spotlight.
Johnson, a longtime opponent of abortion rights and LGBTQ rights, served in Louisiana’s state Legislature from 2015-2017. In Washington, he ran the Republican Study Committee, a group of socially conservative lawmakers, and served as vice chair of the House Republican caucus, a low-ranking party leadership post.
But he has never chaired a congressional committee and will be the least experienced speaker in 140 years.
The Louisianan was a key player in former President Trump’s efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. Johnson not only voted against certifying some election results, he also helped rally over 100 House Republicans to sign a brief in support of a Texas-led effort to get the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn election results in four states won by then-candidate Joe Biden.
The lawsuit received stiff backlash not only from Democrats but also legal experts, who deemed it meritless and shallow.
Johnson supports new restrictions on the rights of LGBTQ Americans. Last year, he introduced legislation that would have banned federally funded institutions from discussing sexual orientation and gender identity. He is a fierce opponent of gender-affirming care for trans youth.
Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, a Washington-based nonprofit that opposes abortion rights, awarded Johnson an A+ for his efforts to limit access to the medical procedure.
The Louisianan’s election severely tempers California’s political power in Congress.
With both Reps. Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco and McCarthy now serving as speaker emeriti, only two Californians remain in congressional leadership: Democratic Reps. Ted Lieu of Torrance and Pete Aguilar of Redlands. And with Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s passing last month, the delegation lost enormous amounts of seniority in the Senate.
Democrats described Johnson as an extremist even before he secured the gavel.
“Mike Johnson is anti-democratic, anti-family, and anti-American,” Pomona Rep. Norma Torres said in a statement. “After 22 days without a Speaker of the House, it is a disgrace that House Republicans chose to elect an extremist as Speaker, rather than pursue a bipartisan path forward for the American people.”
Californian Republicans expressed relief that Johnson’s election ended their conference’s chaos.
Rep. Young Kim of Anaheim Hills said in a statement that she “came to Congress to get things done, not grandstand.”
“My colleagues who voted to oust Speaker McCarthy have ground the House of Representatives to a halt for weeks and kept us from solving the real problems facing the American people,” she said, adding that she would hold Johnson “to his word as we continue to govern for the American people.”
Before the vote, a handful of Democrats shook Johnson’s hand while Republicans stood in line to take selfies with the soon-to-be speaker.
Though Johnson is not as well-known as the Republicans who failed to secure the speakership before him, his lack of a national profile may have ultimately aided his campaign.
A forthcoming HBO documentary on a major sex abuse scandal at Ohio State University could have haunted a previous nominee, Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, if his colleagues had elevated him to the speakership. House Majority Leader Steve Scalise of Louisiana, another failed nominee, faced flak for reportedly attending an event in the early 2000s hosted by a group founded by David Duke, former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.
Jordan, like Johnson, was also deeply involved in election denialism, but Colorado Rep. Ken Buck, who voted for Johnson on Wednesday and against Jordan previously, said there was a key difference between their records.
Ahead of the floor vote, Buck said that Johnson’s involvement was distinct from Jordan’s because Johnson focused his efforts on the legal system, which is “fundamentally different than somebody who is actively involved in moving the protesters from the mall” and to the Capitol, he told reporters.
As speaker, Johnson will need to negotiate with seasoned Democratic leadership, including Biden and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York, on a swath of pressing issues, including potential funding for Ukraine and Israel to aid them in their respective wars.
“Virtually no one has any idea how Mr. Johnson will perform,” Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster, told The Times. “That’s probably the takeaway of the day — a whole series of question marks about him and his leadership.”
Johnson will also need to decide whether to make a deal with Democrats to fend off a Nov. 17 government shutdown that could leave military service members and other federal employees without pay ahead of the holidays.
Ahead of the floor vote, Johnson sketched out a one-year road for his conference, saying he would pass key appropriations bills by the end of this week.
In a statement, Biden congratulated Johnson for his election and made clear his party’s priorities, including avoiding a mid-November shutdown.
“This is a time for all of us to act responsibly, and to put the good of the American people and the everyday priorities of American families above any partisanship,” Biden said.
The House GOP spent more than three weeks without a leader after eight Republicans, led by Florida’s Matt Gaetz, pushed McCarthy out of the speaker’s chair on Oct. 3 with the help of House Democrats.
In his first address from the speaker’s chair, Johnson nodded to McCarthy’s tenure.
“You would be hard pressed to find anybody who loves this institution more or who has contributed more to it. He is the reason we’re in this majority today,” Johnson said. “You helped build it, Kevin, and we owe you a great debt of gratitude.”
The historic vote left the lower chamber leaderless for over three weeks and caused embarrassing infighting within the GOP conference to spill over into the public eye. Before Johnson, three other men who raised their hands for the role — Scalise; Jordan, chair of the Judiciary committee; and Majority Whip Tom Emmer of Minnesota — tried and failed to secure a majority.
Scalise dropped out less than one day after securing the nomination. Jordan endured three humiliating floor votes before being forced to abandon his effort. Emmer, who voted to certify the 2020 election results, quickly saw stiff opposition from far-right members and their leader, Trump, who knifed the Minnesotan on social media, imploring lawmakers to block his candidacy. Four hours after clinching the nomination, Emmer dropped out.
Ahead of Wednesday’s floor vote, Trump made clear his support for Johnson.
The revolving door of speaker nominees was never about finding the right person to lead the Republican conference, Aguilar said in a speech nominating Jeffries to the speakership. “This is about who can appease Donald Trump,” he said.
At least three Republicans stood and applauded in response.
Ed Rollins, a GOP strategist and former senior advisor to President Reagan, agreed with Aguilar’s assessment, saying that “there’s never been a president, in my lifetime, that’s ever played such a role in the House.”
“Historically presidents go and raise money,” he said. “But they don’t mess around with the speaker’s race.”
Before taking his oath of office at 2:45 p.m. Eastern, Johnson addressed his colleagues for about 20 minutes, urging his conference to remain unified so they can accomplish their goals. He committed that the speaker’s office would be known for “trust, transparency and accountability.”
Johnson also had a message for those watching the dysfunction in Washington:
“The people’s House is back in business.”
Logan reported from Washington and Pinho from Santa Barbara.