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A Speaker, if the House Can Keep Him
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A Speaker, if the House Can Keep Him

Plus: Joe Biden draws a primary challenger, Rep. Dean Phillips.

Happy Friday! If you thought going into this week that Republican Rep. Mike Johnson and Democratic Rep. Dean Phillips would be names on everyone’s lips by the end of it, you might consider buying a lottery ticket.

Up to Speed

  • Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin does not plan to file to run in the 2024 New Hampshire primary before Friday’s deadline, possibly quieting speculation he might mount an eleventh-hour bid for the Republican presidential nomination. Some wealthy GOP donors opposed to Donald Trump and unhappy with the candidates running against the former president are encouraging Youngkin to run. “Gov. Youngkin is spending every waking moment making the case for our Virginia candidates—telling voters why they should send him a team in Richmond to keep moving Virginia forward,” chief Youngkin political adviser Dave Rexrode told The Dispatch in a statement. Virginia’s off-year legislative elections are November 7.
  • A federal judge ruled Thursday that Georgia’s congressional and legislative maps unlawfully diminish the voting power of black voters and must be redrawn. The likeliest result is a redrawn federal map netting Democrats another seat in the House in a state currently represented by nine Republicans and five Democrats. The Republican-led legislature will reconvene to draw the new maps, which are due by December 8. 
  • Special counsel Jack Smith is asking a federal judge to reinstate the gag order blocking Donald Trump from commenting publicly on his election-interference trial, citing the former president’s public comments about his former chief of staff, Mark Meadows, who is reportedly cooperating with prosecutors. The temporary suspension last week of Trump’s gag order, Smith argued in a filing, has allowed him to “send an unmistakable and threatening message to a foreseeable witness in this case.” 
  • Arizona Republican Blake Masters is taking another crack at electoral politics. After failing last year to unseat Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly, Masters announced Thursday he will run for the House seat being vacated by Republican Rep. Debbie Lesko, who announced last week she won’t seek reelection in 2024. Masters had been considering another Senate bid, but changed course after former newscaster Kari Lake, who lost the race for governor last year to Democrat Katie Hobbs, entered that contest.
  • Rep. Jared Golden said Thursday he now supports a federal ban on assault weapons. The centrist Democrat offered the declaration after a mass shooting in his hometown of Lewiston, Maine, left 18 people dead. Golden, a Marine veteran who represents Maine’s Republican-leaning 2nd Congressional District, has been an ardent defender of gun rights. The shift could prove problematic for his reelection prospects. Former President Donald Trump won Golden’s large rural district handily in 2016 and 2020.

Meet Speaker Mike Johnson

Speaker of the House Mike Johnson at the U.S. Capitol on Thursday, October 26, 2023. (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call/Getty Images)
Speaker of the House Mike Johnson at the U.S. Capitol on Thursday, October 26, 2023. (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call/Getty Images)

White smoke above Congress: After weeks of chaos, the House at last has its new speaker. 

In an environment where pretty much any preexisting baggage was enough to doom a candidate, Republicans finally found a leader with a clean enough slate for every GOP faction to be satisfied: Rep. Mike Johnson, a peripheral member of GOP leadership whose candidacy sent much of Washington hurriedly flicking through his Wikipedia page. Perhaps his most notable act as a member of Congress was spearheading one of the main congressional efforts to help Donald Trump overturn the results of the 2020 election—but fortunately for him, conference Republicans have tacitly agreed to memory-hole that whole affair. The GOP conference voted him through unanimously.

Johnson came to Congress by way of the Christian legal movement, serving for years as a lawyer at the major religious-right organization Alliance Defending Freedom. As John Brown University professor Daniel Bennett wrote on the site today, Johnson is “by any account a true believer in ADF’s vision for law and American culture: ‘religious freedom, free speech, the sanctity of life, parental rights, and God’s design for marriage and family.’”

Johnson’s decades of staunch social conservatism is already proving a treasure trove for Democratic opposition researchers, who hope to cast him as a reactionary throwback to a more bigoted age. To take just one example: Johnson penned editorials in his hometown paper that called homosexuality “inherently unnatural,” a “dangerous lifestyle” that could destroy “the entire democratic system.”

In an appearance on Sean Hannity’s Fox News program Thursday night, Johnson inched away from that past rhetoric. “Everybody comes to the House of Representatives with deep personal convictions, but all of our personal convictions are not going to become law,” he said. “When the Supreme Court issued the Obergefell opinion, that became the law of the land.”

Of more immediate concern isn’t where Johnson would have weighed in on the fights of the 2000s, but how he’ll shepherd Republicans through the fights dividing them today. When it comes to the war in Ukraine, Johnson remains on the hawkish edge of his conference: “We can’t allow Vladimir Putin to prevail in Ukraine because I don’t believe it would stop there,” Johnson told Hannity. “It would probably encourage and empower China to perhaps make a move on Taiwan.” 

But he will oppose President Biden’s plan to try to pass a joint funding measure soon to send additional funding to both Ukraine and Israel: “I told the staff at the White House today that our consensus among House Republicans is that we need to bifurcate those issues.”

The Motion-to-Vacate Fly in the Ointment

House Republicans’ relief over escaping the agonizing and embarrassing mid-Congress speaker fight is intense. But their buoyancy of the moment might be obscuring one awkward little detail: The House rule that let Rep. Matt Gaetz and his allies throw the House into chaos in the first place remains intact.

During his own grinding campaign for the gavel immediately after last year’s midterms, Rep. Kevin McCarthy—hustling to get Gaetz and company on board his bid—agreed to change the procedures surrounding the so-called “motion to vacate,” lowering the threshold to call for a sudden vote to remove the speaker to a single lawmaker.

When that change allowed Gaetz and a handful of other nihilists to ax McCarthy over the objections of 96 percent of the Republican caucus, irate institutionalists swore that once was more than enough. “The ability for one person to vacate the Speaker of the House will keep a chokehold on this body through 2024,” the pragmatic Main Street Caucus said in a statement earlier this month. “Any candidate for speaker must explain to us how what happened Tuesday never happens again.”

One caucus member, Florida Rep. Carlos Gimenez, went further, saying repeatedly this month that he would oppose any speaker candidate who would not pledge to reform the motion to vacate: “A speaker cannot govern under constant threat by fringe hostage takers.”

If eight House Republicans can remove a Republican speaker, you’d think the Main Street Caucus, a coalition of more than 70, might have the weight to extract one rule change from the next guy. And yet Johnson has not publicly committed to any such change, and when the House reopened for business Thursday, no changes to the rule were offered. (Gimenez and Main Street Caucus chair Rep. Dusty Johnson did not respond to emailed questions about why they had supported Mike Johnson despite this apparent lack of commitment.)

Rep. Don Bacon, another Main Street member, told The Dispatch that “I don’t think the crazies will agree to the change, which means a motion to vacate change will involve some kind of bipartisan agreement.” But if House Democrats weren’t willing to bail out McCarthy, it’s hard to see why they’d agree now to shore up Johnson’s foundations.

In his interview with Hannity, Johnson briefly mentioned the possibility the House could modify the rule. “I think we’re going to change it,” he said, with no follow-up from Hannity. (The speaker’s office did not respond to a Friday-morning request for comment.)

It may not matter for now, of course. Gaetz himself has been perfectly happy to spike the football on the speaker change: “If you don’t think that moving from Kevin McCarthy to MAGA Mike Johnson shows the ascendance of this movement and where the power in the Republican Party truly lies,” he crowed to Steve Bannon this week, “then you’re not paying attention.”

Still, it’s possible that the honeymoon doesn’t last long. Johnson, after all, is taking the gavel under the same tight political calculus that constrained McCarthy: heading a tiny GOP majority across the negotiating table from a Democratic president and a Democratic Senate. The incremental bargaining victories possible in such an environment were intolerably small for Gaetz in the past; only he can know whether he’ll find them tolerable in the future.

With the big negotiating stick of potentially blocking the speaker now past, pragmatic Republicans may not get their next crack at changing the motion-to-vacate rule until the next Congress—assuming they even keep their majority. If they do, there’s a few possible changes they could make beyond simply reinstating the Nancy Pelosi-era rule under which the conference at large needed to consent to vacate the chair. One possible option, according to Georgetown University House-procedure wonk Matt Glassman, would be to change the rule to force the member bringing the motion to also propose a new speaker to elect as part of the same resolution.

In the meantime, the bulk of the House conference will just have to hope Gaetz and company don’t get restless for another scalp. In this, Glassman says, they may have one small piece of comfort.

“The personal animosity of Gaetz and McCarthy … I think that’s a big part of the reason why everyone just has this kind of tacit agreement that probably the worst is past and maybe they don’t need to change the rule right now,” Glassman tells The Dispatch. “It’s not clear to me that anyone in the Republican conference, no matter what Johnson does, could possibly hate him as much as Gaetz hated McCarthy.” 

Hey, Who Is This Guy?

Two obvious questions present themselves about Rep. Dean Phillips, who announced Thursday he would launch a late primary challenge against President Joe Biden. The first: Who? The second: Why?

The former is easier to answer. A amiable millionaire businessman and three-term lawmaker from Minnesota, Phillips advanced to Congress by flipping a red district in the 2018 midterm elections. While in office, he’s hewed to his party’s moderate flank while climbing into leadership, serving this Congress as co-chair of the Democratic Policy and Communications Caucus—until he stepped down earlier this year because of his increasingly vocal criticisms of his party’s president.

The why question is a challenge, though. In Phillips’ telling, he is putting himself forward as an avatar of growing Democratic discontent and uncertainty about Biden’s age and ability to dispatch Donald Trump a second time.  

“I will not sit still,” Phillips told CBS News in an interview. “I will not be quiet in the face of numbers that are so clearly saying that we’re going to be facing an emergency next November.”

But to change that trajectory, Phillips would have to stand a chance of actually beating Biden—which at this point is almost certainly out of the question. How much institutional support does he have? Not even his congressional staff seems enthused, judging by the cagey responses The Dispatch received when we asked where to go for information about his Friday launch. (A congressional aide declined a fairly standard request to provide a campaign contact and instead forwarded our request to a campaign staffer, which went unanswered.)

How much time does he have to make up ground? Less than zero: He’s already missed key filing deadlines and is likely to miss more. Even in New Hampshire, the early state where Biden doesn’t plan to campaign due to intra-party disagreements over the primary schedule and which will form the centerpiece of Phillips campaign, he introduced himself to Democratic Chair Ray Buckley only two weeks ago.

But what the 54-year-old congressman can accomplish is to undermine the president politically ahead of what is sure to be a bruising general election—whether against former President Donald Trump or another Republican. 

Incumbent commanders in chief who face primary challengers, no matter how insignificant, tend to lose their bid for a second term. That includes Presidents Gerald Ford in 1976, Jimmy Carter in 1980, George Herbert Walker Bush in 1992, and Trump in 2020. That is why Phillips’ belated decision to challenge Biden in the Democratic primary, after initially declining to run, is worrying some veteran party operatives.

“This is the first one that really, on the face of it, is an ego trip,” Joe Trippi, a Democratic pollster, told The Dispatch. “That doesn’t mean, though, that he can’t damage or soften up, or open up attacks on Biden that could hurt—which is what makes this so reckless in my view given there’s no chance at all of succeeding.”

What’s particularly perplexing to some Democrats is that Phillips doesn’t appear to have policy disagreements with Biden. 

Most primary challenges stem from disagreements on key issues. For example, in 1992, Bush faced a challenge from conservative columnist Pat Buchanan, a former aide to President Richard Nixon. He represented the deep dissatisfaction with the 41st president simmering on the GOP’s populist right flank. Phillips, meanwhile, usually votes in lockstep with Biden’s agenda on the House floor. 

The congressman’s complaint isn’t that Biden is insufficiently progressive, but rather that he is insufficiently spry. And perhaps because Phillips doesn’t appear to be initiating an ideological clash with the president that might split the Democratic coalition, some party insiders are hopeful the urgency of defeating the eventual Republican nominee will shield Biden from the curse of the primary challenger. 

“There’s another twist to all this, in that the threat posed to democracy is far greater than it’s ever been,” said Ed Espinoza, a Democratic operative in Austin, Texas. “In that, Democratic voters are united against those attacks.”

Notable and Quotable 

“I’d just like to know if there’s any job openings in Senator Grassley’s office.”—Sen. Cory Booker (D-New Jersey), upon learning that 20 marriages have occurred between staffers who met in the office of Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), October 26, 2023

Andrew Egger is a former associate editor for The Dispatch.

David M. Drucker is a senior writer at The Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he was a senior correspondent for the Washington Examiner. When Drucker is not covering American politics for The Dispatch, he enjoys hanging out with his two boys and listening to his wife's excellent taste in music.

Michael Warren is a senior editor at The Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he was an on-air reporter at CNN and a senior writer at the Weekly Standard. When Mike is not reporting, writing, editing, and podcasting, he is probably spending time with his wife and three sons.