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In 22 days, US House Republicans ousted their best fundraiser and replaced him with one of their weakest.
Mike Johnson, the new Speaker of the House of Representatives, displayed singular backroom skill to emerge as the consensus candidate for the Republican party on Wednesday, after Steve Scalise, Jim Jordan and Tom Emmer tried and failed to succeed the toppled Kevin McCarthy.
But Johnson, a Christian conservative from a relatively poor district in north-west Louisiana, lacks relationships with big donors who helped fuel the Republican takeover of the House in the 2022 midterm elections. He now faces the daunting prospect of protecting the party’s tiny majority in the lower chamber in 2024.
“Never met him or had a call from him,” said an adviser to a Republican megadonor. “I had to read his Wiki page, as I knew absolutely nothing about him.”
The questions over the relatively unknown House Republican’s ability to raise money come as the party tries to recuperate after an unprecedented, chaotic process to elect a new leader.
Since winning a competitive primary to become the Republican candidate for his district in 2016, Johnson has been a below-average fundraiser. The typical House member raised about $3mn in the 2022 election cycle; Johnson raised less than half of that, according to OpenSecrets. In 2022, he barely cracked the top 300 of 435 incumbents.
For a member of leadership, the contrast is even starker. In his entire congressional career, Johnson has raised only $5.5mn — about half of what McCarthy’s personal campaign account has on hand.
Johnson’s donors are tied to local interests, including the oil and gas industry, healthcare providers, and contractors. But an affiliated political action committee has raised just $245,000 so far this year, and all the donations were from Louisiana, except six from Texas. Another Pac affiliated with him raised even less.
Johnson, however, has been elected to leadership positions and become a team player, directing more than $400,000 to the National Republican Congressional Committee, the House GOP campaign arm, in 2022.
But he is well aware that after his unexpected rise to the top, he will need to quickly form relationships with the top donors of the party and raise millions more. The Congressional Leadership Fund and NRCC raised nearly $550mn combined in the 2022 election cycle — and are about $10mn behind their Democratic counterparts in cash on hand.
“He will obviously ramp up his fundraising activity and capability now that he is speaker,” said Mike Lawler, a congressman from New York, referring to Johnson. “Kevin, obviously, is the most prolific fundraiser that we’ve had in Congress, so it’s going to take some time to get back up to speed.”
Lawler added that he was confident Johnson would “work hard on behalf of the conference — and build the relationships that he needs”.
Democrats are also trying to figure out who Johnson is, and trying to link him to better-known, unpopular Republicans. They have already homed in on his anti-gay marriage views, advocacy in favour of banning abortions, his support for overturning Joe Biden’s 2020 election victory, and former president Donald Trump’s new nickname for the House Speaker: “MAGA Mike”.
A press release from House Majority PAC, the super Pac aligned with the House Democratic leadership, blasted New York Republicans — holding traditionally more progressive seats — for electing as Speaker who was also backed by Matt Gaetz, the firebrand Florida congressman and Trump ally.
Democrat Nydia Velázquez yelled “bye-bye” after Lawler, one of the vulnerable New York Republicans, voted for Johnson. “I thought it was comical,” Lawler told the Financial Times.
“I’ve won twice in two-to-one Democratic districts, because the voters in my district know who I am,” he said. “I suspect my voters will be more focused on what I’m doing as opposed to speaker votes or what the speaker is saying about a given issue,” Lawler added.
Representatives for Johnson did not respond to requests for comment.
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