Usually, when a new speaker takes office, they’ve spent years in the leadership or on a House committee assembling a top-flight staff, an extensive political infrastructure and a deep donor network.
Speaker Mike Johnson has a staff of 12. Eight of Johnson’s aides started working for the Louisiana Republican in 2023. He’s raised just $553,000 this year. Compare that to the $16 million former Speaker Kevin McCarthy raised in the third quarter alone.
In Johnson’s previous job, conference vice chair, his main role was scheduling one-minute speeches on the floor and urging members to pen op-eds. Johnson created a contest whereby the best orators and op-ed writers got mini statues of historical figures such as John Adams and Patrick Henry. During football season, Johnson handed out signed footballs.
Johnson was on the periphery of the House GOP leadership for a long time. He served on the Steering Committee, which chooses committee assignments, and attended the Elected Leadership Council meetings. But he never took part in the Daily Management Meeting, the nerve center for the House GOP leadership.
Johnson is about to have a very rude awakening.
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.
We’re going to explore a few dynamics that Johnson will face: The makeup of his own leadership table, his policy operation, political operation and his inner circle.
House GOP leadership. Johnson’s leadership table is filled with Republicans who tried and failed to win the speakership — most notably, Majority Leader Steve Scalise and Majority Whip Tom Emmer.
Scalise and Johnson — both Louisianans — are relatively close. Scalise’s chief of staff, Brett Horton, and Johnson’s chief of staff, Hayden Haynes, are both from Monroe, La., (As is Mehgan Perez-Acosta, chief of staff to Florida GOP Rep. Byron Donalds, another speaker candidate).
As we noted in our Wednesday AM edition — and as Brendan Buck, the former House GOP aide, wrote Wednesday as well — Scalise immediately becomes a more powerful figure in the House with Johnson’s ascension. It’s quite the turn of fortunes for Scalise, whose speaker campaign quickly fizzled out two weeks ago.
In some ways, Johnson’s ascendance could mark the revitalization of Scalise and Republican Conference Chair Elise Stefanik. McCarthy neutered the leadership table, to some degree, when he empowered close allies like Reps. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.) and Garret Graves (R-La.) as his consiglieres. Johnson is much more likely to turn to other elected leaders for help, according to sources.
There is the potential for drama here. What happens if Republicans lose the majority? Will Scalise drop to minority whip and Johnson take minority leader? All very interesting.
Policy staff. Let’s now turn to policy staff. This may be Johnson’s most pressing concern.
It takes dozens of people to run the speaker’s office. And Johnson doesn’t have that kind of firepower yet.
Johnson told us Wednesday that he has “a staff that I’m bringing in” — meaning some staffers from his personal office. Haynes is likely one of those.
“We’ll be interviewing with a lot of the McCarthy staff — the institutional employees — to work through that and see how many want to stay on,” Johnson added.
The institutional employees Johnson is referring to likely include the House general counsel and sergeant at arms staffers.
But McCarthy has a number of aides that seem likely to get a look from Johnson. Brittan Specht, McCarthy’s policy director, understands the nuances of leadership policy debates and has roots in the Republican Study Committee. Jason Yaworske, McCarthy’s appropriations staffer, is also well respected in the GOP leadership world. He was chief of staff to conservative Rep. Warren Davidson (R-Ohio) for more than two years.
Johnson will have to build out a more extensive communications operation with a television booker — something he doesn’t have at the moment. The new speaker needs a member services team and protocol staffers for foreign dignitaries.
Political operation. Johnson will need a very extensive political operation. McCarthy has several people who work full-time on fundraising. Given the state of Johnson’s political operation — he has just $1.1 million on hand — the Louisiana Republican can barely afford to pay a team of political aides who will demand upwards of $150,000 annually each.
Inner circle. Johnson’s inner circle is incredibly small for a man who has ascended to the speaker’s chair. Outside of his staff, Johnson is close with the House’s Bible-study group. This includes Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), the Energy and Commerce Committee chair who nominated Johnson for speaker inside the GOP conference.
After asking dozens of sources over the last few days, the only downtown allies that Johnson has are the Heritage Foundation crew and Dan Ziegler, the former RSC executive director who works at Williams and Jensen. Ziegler lobbies for companies such as Eli Lilly, Merck, Novo Nordisk, Phrma and the News Media Alliance.
— Jake Sherman