How did House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., become House Speaker Mike Johnson?
“Nobody knows!” was the joke on Saturday Night Live.
That’s partly true with Johnson and how House leaders rise from the rank and file.
On the morning of Tuesday, Oct. 24, House Republicans met to select their fourth nominee for speaker in the three weeks since they dethroned former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. House Majority Whip Tom Emmer, R-Minn., secured scores of more votes for speaker than anyone in the balloting. Mike Johnson’s candidacy was alive but with a barely detectable heartbeat. Johnson only secured 34 votes during the first round of closed-door balloting for speaker.
Emmer was the nominee by midday. But there are radioactive elements on the political periodic table that enjoy half lives longer than Emmer’s nomination. He dropped out after a few hours. By mid-afternoon on Wednesday, Oct. 25, the House elected Johnson as its 56th speaker.
One source described the ripening of the Johnson candidacy for the speakership to a hothouse where tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, eggplant and onions grow quickly. After Emmer bowed out, you could practically see the political trellis inside this hothouse, begging for the vines to grow.
But the source cautioned that perhaps in desperation, the Johnson candidacy ripened too quickly. Yes, Republicans had burned through three speaker nominees by then and the House had been adrift without a leader for 22 days as war raged in the Middle East. The Johnson speakership sprouted overnight with its tendrils growing throughout the House Republican Conference. That’s why Johnson scored a unanimous vote from House Republicans the next day on the floor.
It’s almost as though Johnson’s speakership candidacy was like “Jack and the Beanstalk.” Johnson’s handful of magic beans grew into a towering beanstalk overnight. Of course, when Jack ascended the beanstalk, he discovers the castle of an unfriendly giant.
Johnson is kind of in the same spot as Jack. He’s trying to set the speakership straight for his party. But as Johnson is quickly discovering, there are plenty of angry giants atop the beanstalk who are out to get him.
Johnson was well-known to rank-and-file Republicans as the former vice chairman of the House GOP Conference. That’s a lower-tier leadership position. So, just enough to be known on the inside but enough to be a stranger to the general public. Moreover, Johnson wasn’t in one of the top leadership positions like House Majority Leader Steve Scalise, R-La., or Emmer. That’s to say nothing of a high-profile member like House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Jordan, R-Ohio.
Johnson was able to rely on his “inside” game to reach the speakership after Republicans chewed up other “spotlight” figures in the political meat grinder.
In short, Johnson was just the right person, with just enough resonance among House Republicans, in the right place, at the right time.
It’s doubtful Johnson would have been in “the right place, at the right time” had Republicans not incinerated the other candidates. Those same House Republicans found themselves on the verge of despair, needing someone who was just credible enough with the proper credentials to fill the void.
In fact, as protracted as the speaker election was, the crisis in the Middle East may have actually accelerated the selection of Johnson. The same could be said had the likes of Scalise, Jordan and Emmer not melted down so spectacularly.
This brings us to one of my most battle-tested maxims of congressional leadership elections. Lawmakers who somehow claw their way to the top of the House and Senate leadership ranks do so because of “particle politics.” It’s not “partisan politics.” Political outcomes are a result of the disposition of infinitesimal subatomic particles whizzing around the Large Hadron Collider that doubles as Capitol Hill. There are political quarks, electrons, leptons and even the Higgs boson.
It would have been impossible to anticipate the chances of a “Speaker Johnson” just a few weeks ago — even if you squinted. That’s because the Johnson speakership was only detectable at the subatomic political level. You can’t see a scenario like that coming — unless you’re Ant-Man. The political Large Hadron Collider is sorting the political fates among the atoms.
It’s unseeable. It’s unknowable.
Consider that for different periods, Messrs. Scalise, Jordan and Emmer all seemingly had an inside track to the speakership.
Until they didn’t.
That’s when Johnson arrived on the scene.
Congressional history is stocked with tales of political figures who were on the alleged precipice of power — only to have it dashed away in favor of someone else.
Former Rep. Bob Livingston, R-La., was only weeks away from becoming speaker of the House in the late 1990s. He was the GOP’s nominee for speaker when Congress convened in January 1999.
And then it was discovered that Livingston had an affair.
Livingston stepped aside and gave way to a little-known figure named former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill. Hastert was the House GOP deputy whip — the same position currently held by Rep. Guy Reschenthaler, R-Penn. Hastert went on to serve as the longest Republican speaker in history. He later did jail time for covering up financial transactions to pay off teenagers he abused sexually when he was a high school teacher and wrestling coach.
Former House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, was supposed to lose a race for House majority leader to then-House Majority Whip and future Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., in 2006. Boehner then bested Blunt in an upset and became speaker in 2011.
Former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., was on track as Boehner’s successor as speaker. Cantor then unexpectedly lost his primary to former Rep. Dave Brat, R-Va., in 2014.
McCarthy was lined up to succeed Boehner when he unexpectedly retired in the fall of 2015. McCarthy practically had the speaker’s job for a few days — until he didn’t. Former House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said he wasn’t interested in the job — until he was. Ryan became speaker. McCarthy sat on the sidelines for more than seven years. That’s what made McCarthy’s rise to the speakership this past January such an astonishing comeback. And the events of 2015 speak to the reason why McCarthy’s tenure as speaker was so short-lived in 2023.
We haven’t even talked about the scenario where the House was inching close to voting on a plan to elect House Financial Services Committee Chairman Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., as speaker pro tempore. That may have actually given McHenry entrée to the bona fide speakership down the line.
There were other competitive leadership races over the years, decided by whiskers. Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., preferred the late Rep. John Murtha, D-Penn., as majority leader. But former House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., defeated Murtha for the post in late 2006.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., won in a narrow election in early 1989 to matriculate to House minority whip. That’s only because the nomination of late-Sen. John Tower, R-Texas, to become defense secretary under President George H.W. Bush blew up. Former Vice President Dick Cheney had just become the House GOP whip. But Mr. Bush tapped Cheney to become defense secretary after Tower bowed out. Otherwise, there would not have been an immediate opportunity for Gingrich to slide into leadership.
Gingrich’s win paved the way for Republicans to win the House in 1994 for the first time in four decades and propelled the Georgia Republican to the speakership.
History for Gingrich and the “Republican Revolution” of 1994 may have unfolded very differently were it not for the failed nomination of John Tower.
How did Mike Johnson become speaker?
“Nobody knows,” is the response.
But in reality, there is a reason.
Particle politics. Seismic events — shifting at microscopic, almost undetectable levels.
Which is why it’s always hard to figure out who winds up in leadership.