When Rep. Mike Johnson became Speaker of the House, many public affairs teams had to scramble. A relatively unknown lawmaker from Louisiana would be in charge of the Republican-controlled House and second in the line of presidential succession. Who is he and what does it mean?
Making matters more extreme, Johnson took over after a three-week Republican battle that left the House rudderless as it headed toward a government shutdown. Though Congress ultimately averted the budget crisis, Johnson himself said, “I’ve been drinking from Niagara Falls for the last three weeks.”
That’s not likely to change anytime soon. In coming weeks, Johnson will have to hire dozens of staff, build a national fundraising apparatus, manage his relationship with fellow Republicans, run the House with an extremely narrow margin, and address legislation—all while heading toward an election that will decide party control of Congress and the White House.
“It’s a little bit like being asked to pilot a commercial airline, and they pull you from the back of the plane and stick you in the cockpit,” said Matthew Green, a professor of politics at Catholic University. “You immediately have to figure out how to make things work.
Todd Wooten, an attorney with Holland and Knight who worked on The Hill for years, said at a Quorum Wonk Week panel that he expects a tumultuous start. “It will be rocky at the beginning,” he said, “And that’s not necessarily his fault,”
Jake Sherman, a longtime political analyst and co-founder of Punchbowl News, put it more starkly. “Johnson is about to have a very rude awakening,” he wrote. “The transition from low-level leadership to the speaker is a jump that few—if any—lawmakers make. And it will take time and a lot of effort for Johnson to build an operation that’s up to the job he’s taken on.”
For public affairs teams who need to understand what to expect from the Republican-controlled House in the weeks ahead, how to best build relationships, and where the policy priorities may land, here are six factors to watch.
Who is Johnson Hiring?
Johnson will have to hire dozens of staff in coming weeks, and experts say how he fills those roles will be instructive. “The first thing I look at is staff,” Green said. “How many folks from the previous regime are still there? How many expert hands are there?”
Yet, unlike members of Congress who have been in office for decades, or served as committee chairs or in top leadership roles, Johnson does not have a large team ready to go.
“He doesn’t necessarily have a deep roster of staff who have worked for him,” Wooten said. “There are some people who, if they came into this role, they’ve got 40 or 50 people downtown who would probably come back. … But for him, finding people who he can trust will be tricky.”
Johnson has already named his top lieutenants, a mix of people he has worked with, people already in place, and people with strong Republican credentials. But there’s far more hiring ahead. Public affairs teams should watch to see who is hired in the coming weeks—and who is added to that circle in the long term—so they can capitalize on existing relationships and build new ones.
How Does He Handle Committees?
Another indicator is how Johnson approaches House committees. While some Speakers have trusted the traditional committee process to create legislation, including hearings, markups, and amendments (often referred to as “regular order”), others have put less faith in that process and done more from party leadership offices.
“Is he hands-on or is he hands-off?” Green said. “Does he want committees to be more active? Or does he want to do more things within the Speaker’s office? Those are some of the things I would look at from a more of a practical angle.”
How Johnson chooses to use House committees will have a major impact on the legislative agenda of almost every organization that tracks federal bills, affecting everything from how they lobby to the need for grassroots activity. A system that values committee work might require a more diverse (and perhaps more labor intensive) approach, while a leadership-based system may require more targeted efforts.
Green also said the Speaker will bring his own policy priorities to the job, and that is another angle that public affairs teams can explore. Looking at Johnson’s background may reveal some of his interests and motivations. “I would want to hire somebody to do some digging, have some conversations and talk to folks who know him well,” Green said.
What Does Fundraising Look Like?
Johnson will need to raise a great deal more money than he does right now—and he almost certainly will. The question is how fast he can build a larger fundraising apparatus.
Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the previous Republican Speaker who was ousted by members of his conference this year, raised more than $13.7 million since January and had more than $10.6 million in cash on hand at the end of September, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Johnson’s congressional warchest raised about $548,000 and had about $1.15 million on hand.
Anyone who holds the gavel is going to see fundraising increase as donors, PACs, and others with an interest in politics and Congress introduce themselves. But Johnson has a majority to maintain and the election is just a year away. Transitioning from a state or regional network to a high-dollar national fundraising team could take time.
For PAC managers and those who work in fundraising, this may present an opportunity to help the party in power meet its goals, whether through attending fundraisers or raising money more directly. Even without direct involvement, it’s a metric that shows how Johnson and House Republicans are faring politically.
How’s His Relationship With Donald Trump?
In a Facebook post back in 2015, Johnson said that Trump “lacks the character and the moral center we desperately need again in the White House.” But much has changed since then. Johnson has since become a vocal supporter of Trump, working to undermine the results of the 2020 election, defending him in both impeachment trials, and endorsing him for president in 2024. At least one Republican lawmaker has taken to calling Johnson “MAGA Mike.”
Yet Trump is well known for excommunicating allies who make him unhappy and Johnson could find it far more difficult to maintain Trump’s support as the Speaker than he did as a congressman from Louisiana. “It requires a lot of energy to stay on his good side,” Green said. “That’s energy that could be better used to do all the other things that you presumably want to do as Speaker.”
Watching the relationship between Trump and Johnson allows public affairs professionals to open a window on how Johnson is faring with the MAGA wing of his party, which is critical to almost everything he wants to accomplish moving forward, from legislation to maintaining the majority.
When Will the Honeymoon End?
Johnson appeared to pass his first big test when the House approved a stopgap spending measure to keep the government running into next year. The continuing resolution took a relatively novel “laddered approach” in which some parts of the government will run out of money in January and some in February.
There are more big tests ahead, but Johnson appears to be in a honeymoon period in which Republicans are giving him latitude to ramp up. “Does he have a honeymoon? Yes,” Green said. “How long will it be? I don’t know.”
For public affairs professionals, this is a critical question. Infighting among Republicans can make Johnson’s job dramatically harder. The longer he can operate with the full support of the Republican conference, the more he is likely to get done. Whether that is possible, or for how long, are questions only time will reveal.
Nationally, polling shows that Johnson starts with a relatively blank slate. A Morning Consult poll in early November showed that 53 percent of voters had no opinion on Johnson or didn’t know who he was. At the same time, many of the forces that have caused tumult in the House Republican conference are still there—and so are the people. Several Republicans ran for Speaker and lost before Johnson was elected.
“We have a history in Congress, in both parties, of members lower down on the leadership ladder who are ambitious, eyeing the current speaker and thinking, ‘I could do that job better,’” Green said. “He’s got to watch out for that.”
Outlook for the 2024 Election
At the same time, Republicans hold the house by just four seats. With 435 voting members, 218 is a majority. Republicans hold 221 seats, which will likely return to 222 when a vacancy in a safe Republican district in Utah is filled. Johnson will be part of the team changed with maintaining and increasing that majority, meaning everything from raising money to recruiting candidates.
“He’s got very little experience in this,” Green said. “This is one of those reasons you use the leadership ladder. You learn these different tasks as you’re moving up … but he doesn’t have that background.”
It all adds up to a challenge. Polling by Navigator Research, a progressive polling firm, shows the disapproval rating for House Republicans at 22 percent in October, up from 12 percent in July. House Democrats held steady at 10 percent during the same period.
As Green put it, “he’s got to find a way to make the Republican Party look better.” Many public affairs teams will be watching to see how he does.