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Democrats zero in on Speaker Johnson in effort to flip House control

Speaker Mike Johnson leads the House agenda, but he also plays a crucial political role heading into the 2024 election, as the GOP works to expand their majority.
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Speaker Mike Johnson leads the House agenda, but he also plays a crucial political role heading into the 2024 election, as the GOP works to expand their majority.

Democrats see an opportunity to make Speaker Mike Johnson a central part of their strategy to flip control of the House in 2024. But many GOP lawmakers running for reelection in swing districts have downplayed Johnson's conservative positions and instead stress his even keeled tone that they believe will connect with voters.

Rep. Suzan DelBene, chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, argues Johnson's record is the issue, "what we may have a new face, but the extremism is still there. In fact, he may be even more extreme."

She concedes that voters may not know who Johnson is, but DelBene believes the more people learn about the speaker, the more he could become a liability for Republicans across the country.

"While he may be unknown to folks, I think a lot is coming out every day about where he stands and how extreme he is," DelBene said. "You know, as someone who wanted to overturn the 2020 election, someone wants to see a nationwide abortion ban, someone who wants to cut Social Security and Medicare."

Turning a speaker into a political brand

Republicans ran ads for years linking vulnerable Democrats to then Speaker Nancy Pelosi. But GOP strategist Ken Spain says it's hard for Democrats to do that for Johnson. "He is an unknown quantity to the vast majority of American voters. He's less defined and therefore is not a political vulnerability, at least not yet."

Spain says the new speaker faces pressure to avoid any hint of the drama that led to his election last month, after three other candidates failed to unite the party to get the gavel. "The one way the speaker can become a political vulnerability is if the majority cannot function. And we've already gotten a taste of that over the course of the last several weeks. If that continues to spill into 2024, it could become incredibly problematic."

New speaker a break from pattern of GOP leaders aligned with business interests

Johnson hails from adifferent wing of the Republican Party than his predecessors. Speakers John Boehner, Paul Ryan and Kevin McCarthy had close ties to the Chamber of Commerce, Wall Street and corporate donors — key to amassing large coffers of campaign cash. But Johnson is closer to the grassroots and evangelical base.

"He's more aligned with this ascendant wing, more populist blue collar wing of the party. That means he's less in touch or closely aligned with the business community. However, at the same time, he's already become a relatively successful fundraiser," Spain notes.

That connection was immediately clear. The new speaker raised $1 million in just the first few days after he won the gavel.

But Rep. John Duarte, R-Calif., a top target for the DCCC, says Johnson has big shoes to fill. "Kevin McCarthy was by far the king of Republican fundraising. As majority leader, minority leader and as speaker. So I don't know that we can expect the same out of Mike Johnson right away, but he's done a great job. His acceptance speech, his interviews. I mean, he's a very likable guy."

McCarthy raised about $500 million through his own accounts, his outside super PAC and contributions to the House GOP's campaign arm, over the 2022 midterm cycle. The Congressional Leadership Fund, the outside super PAC that raised the bulk of that money and helped recruit and support GOP candidates, says Johnson can "pick up the baton" from McCarthy, and insisted the playing field hasn't changed with Johnson as speaker.

"Our targeted incumbents are strong and have cultivated individual brands, our recruits are far superior to theirs, and Democrats continue to embrace toxic policies far from the mainstream. Republicans remain in an excellent position to hold and grow the majority next fall," Dan Conston, president of CLF, said in a statement.

Republicans running in swing districts praise Johnson's style, downplay substance

The battle for the House will take place in roughly 60 of the 435 House districts. Mike Garcia, another California Republican in a top tier race, admits Johnson is further to the right than he is. "So he is certainly more conservative than I am. He's more conservative than many are in the conference. So his personal positions on the things don't matter as much as what is the legislative agenda look like and what are the things that we're going to be bringing to the floor."

Johnson has voted for a national ban on abortion, but Duarte emphasized that the new speaker made it clear he's not pushing legislation in his new role. "He's already stated that he doesn't see a political consensus for national abortion policy."

Nebraska Congressman Don Bacon, a moderate, echoes what a lot of other centrists told NPR. He downplayed Johnson's positions on issues but say his tone will connect with voters.

"He's got seven principles of conservative values that he has," Bacon said. "I think they're very Reagan like principles. And so his message is unifying. It's positive. It's not demonizing the other side."

Another vulnerable Republican, Marc Molinaro from New York, says Johnson says his new role as speaker means he will include input from more moderates in deciding the agenda. "We're going to have differences. But what he assured me and what was very convincing for me is that members like me and voices like those I represent will be at the table as we develop policy. And that's what's important."

But DelBene says Democrats want to make sure voters don't see Johnson as a kinder, softer, more moderate speaker. They'll spend the next year trying to paint him and every Republican incumbent and challenger as an extremist.

"The fact that every single House Republican supported him, it was unanimous, kind of says that they are OK with someone with these points of view representing them as the leader of their party in the House and frankly, as a leader of their party across the country," DelBene told NPR.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Deirdre Walsh
Deirdre Walsh is a congressional correspondent for NPR's Washington Desk.
Vincent Acovino
[Copyright 2024 NPR]