Mike Johnson is the first Republican House speaker from the South since Newt Gingrich, putting the region back in the driver's seat of GOP politics

  • Rep. Mike Johnson's ascent to the House speakership last week took most in the GOP by surprise.

  • He's now the first House speaker from the South since Newt Gingrich held the gavel in the 1990s.

  • Johnson's elevation puts the South front and center. The region could determine control of the House.

Rep. Mike Johnson's ascent to the speakership came so quickly that during his acceptance speech, he mentioned that his wife couldn't make it to Washington in time to attend his swearing-in ceremony.

"This happened sort of suddenly," the Louisiana Republican said last Wednesday after succeeding Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California as speaker and as the new leader of the House GOP conference.

With McCarthy's ouster from the role comes a major regional shift as Johnson is the first Southern Republican to lead the House since Newt Gingrich of Georgia held the gavel from 1995 to 1999. In the late 1990s, Gingrich's ideological tussles with then-President Bill Clinton coincided with the region's growing strength as the party's anchor.

With Johnson as speaker and Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky leading the GOP in the upper chamber, Southern politicians will once again orient the party's agenda on both ends of the Capitol.

Why is this bolstered Southern influence so significant?

An agenda at stake

Johnson, who chaired the conservative Republican Study Committee less than three years ago, is now tasked with patching up an entire conference whose internal divisions led to the weekslong leadership stalemate while also appeasing conservatives who orchestrated McCarthy's removal.

However, with President Joe Biden in the White House and Democrats running the Senate, House Republicans are limited in pushing the full scope of their priorities.

Mike Johnson
Rep. Mike Johnson takes the oath of office to become the next House speaker on October 25, 2023.AP Photo/Alex Brandon

Cue McConnell, as well as House Majority Leader Steve Scalise, a fellow Louisiana lawmaker who will be key in helping guide Johnson as the new speaker seeks to keep the government open next month —while also navigating the party's sharp internal divides over increased aid for Ukraine.

One thing is certain: Louisiana, for at least the next year, will have newfound prominence in national policy conversations.

An electoral dilemma

In the early-to-mid 1990s, cracks in the Republican presidential coalition were impossible to ignore as the national GOP — led by leaders like Gingrich — became increasingly tilted toward the conservatism of the South.

While the GOP was once dominant in suburbs around cities like New York, Chicago, and Denver, voters in those communities were often socially liberal and moderate-to-conservative on fiscal matters. But with the rise of the Religious Right and the GOP's sharply defined views on issues like abortion, many of those voters increasingly backed Democratic presidential nominees.

Mitch McConnell
Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky leads the GOP conference in the upper chamber.Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Johnson's antiabortion stance and his long-standing opposition to same-sex marriage were already known within the GOP, but his views are now fully on view on a national stage.

How might that impact the presidential race, as voters determine whether they'll continue to back a divided government or give one party full control? Could Johnson become a foil, similar to Clinton's needling of Gingrich ahead of the 1996 presidential election?

Johnson is nothing like the sort of bombastic figure that Gingrich was in the 1990s, but as the country has become more polarized, conservative priorities pushed by House Republicans could become an effective wedge for Democrats as they seek to hold the White House next year.

The South may decide control of the House

Republicans have a 221-212 House majority, a razor-thin margin that empowered them earlier this year while also holding them back as just a handful of holdouts can tank party priorities.

The GOP presidential nominee (likely former President Donald Trump) will almost certainly perform well on the presidential level in Johnson's native Louisiana, as well as most of the Deep South, which has become the bedrock of the party's electoral coalition.

Ironically, the South could also cost the party its majority.

Challenges to Republican-drawn congressional districts across the South could give Democrats a significant opening to flip the House in 2024.AP Photo/Kim Chandler

In Alabama, the GOP-controlled legislature was ordered to redraw its seven congressional districts and retool one district (to augment an existing majority-Black district) to boost Black voting power in the state following the US Supreme Court's rejection of the state's interpretation of the Voting Rights Act. But the legislature redrew lines that fell well short of what was directed to them, so a three-judge federal district court panel earlier this month selected maps that were constructed by a special master.

Republicans now enjoy a 6-1 edge in Alabama's congressional delegation, but the new map gives Democrats an excellent opportunity to pick up a seat.

In Georgia and Florida, courts have recently ruled that legislatures diluted Black voting strength and have also ordered new maps. (The Georgia ruling, which came last week, will likely be appealed by the state.)

Ongoing challenges in states, including Arkansas, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Johnson's native Louisiana, could mean that Democrats may be able to chip away at the GOP's majority.

So Johnson, who, unlike McCarthy, has not been a prodigious fundraiser in the past, will have to buckle up and learn the ropes quickly.

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