WASHINGTON – Mike Johnson’s sudden rise to the speakership reflects a major rightward shift for House Republicans in what could be a big test for the more moderate wing of the conference.
The Louisiana Republican is far more conservative than his predecessors. Prior to taking the gavel, Johnson voted against Ukraine aid, codifying same-sex marriage and has also co-sponsored federal legislation to restrict abortion rights.
While it is yet to be seen what Johnson’s policy agenda will exactly entail – the newly crowned speaker has so far declined to answer reporters’ questions about legislation – moderate House Republicans say they have no qualms about his voting record.
At the end of the day, they say, Republicans still control the House with just a four-seat majority which means each member can leverage an outsized amount of power with their vote.
Just as ultraconservatives wielded power during former Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s era, moderates can use their votes as loud voices.
‘The conference as a whole’
Rep. Marc Molinaro, R-N.Y., a vulnerable GOP lawmaker who represents a district President won in the 2020 election, shrugged off the possibility Johnson could push the conference in a more conservative direction.
“The speaker has said to us out loud that he recognizes the need to represent the interests of members like me and districts like mine,” Molinaro told USA TODAY. “When you become speaker, you’re not only responsible for your district, but for the conference as a whole.”
Following Johnson’s election, Molinaro along with members from various corners of the conference were in Johnson’s escort committee to walk the speaker-elect into the House chamber, which he said was “symbolic” of Johnson’s ability to lead House Republicans.
Another moderate representing a Biden-won district, Rep. Mike Lawler, R-N.Y., outright dismissed concerns about Johnson’s voting record.
“Whatever his personal views are on issues or however he’s voted in the past or bills he’s introduced, I leave that to him to explain or defend or articulate what his position is on that,” Lawler told USA TODAY. “All of us are going to represent our own districts. The speaker can have his personal views, we have ours. You still need 218 votes, it doesn’t matter what his own personal view may be on an issue.”
‘MAGA Mike Johnson’
From the perspective of the party’s right flank however, Johnson’s election as speaker is a major victory for ultraconservative lawmakers. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., who spearheaded the efforts to oust McCarthy, Johnson’s predecessor, gave the speaker a new title: “MAGA Mike Johnson.”
“If you don’t think that moving from Kevin McCarthy to MAGA Mike Johnson shows the ascendance of this movement and where the power of the Republican Party truly lies, then you’re not paying attention,” Gaetz said on Steve Bannon’s podcast, “War Room,” openly tying Johnson to former President Donald Trump.
Johnson played a major role in former President Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election, leading a letter to the Supreme Court asking the high court to invalidate the election in multiple key battleground states.
Johnson’s conservative credentials aren’t necessarily a “bad thing” for Rep. Mike Garcia, R-Calif., another member representing a Biden-won district.
“He’s got his pulse on the conference. He knows with a thin majority that we have to be mindful of the swing seats and some of these purple or blue districts like mine,” Garcia told USA TODAY.
Garcia said his office has already been fielding phone calls from constituents to explain “who he is and where he is from and the fact that the most important thing is that we’re legislating. The House is back up and running.”
“I remind my constituents that he doesn’t represent my district,” he added.
Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., another moderate from a Biden-won district, said he and any like-minded GOP colleagues don’t have much to fret about considering the narrow GOP majority in the House.
“If I don’t agree with a position, I vote no. I still have my own voting card.” Bacon said. “We have an opportunity to shape these discussions in conference. They can’t deal with too many NOs out of our conference so we have a good voice with a four-seat majority.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Mike Johnson’s ‘MAGA’ record: Why moderate Republicans aren’t worried
Evan Massoud is a political analyst with a knack for dissecting policy and governance. He provides readers with informed perspectives on political developments at home and abroad. Evan’s dedication to civic engagement extends to volunteering in local politics.