Tony Perkins was a state legislator in Louisiana during the late 1990s when he first met Mike Johnson. He had come to Louisiana State University’s law school, where Johnson was in his final year, to give a lecture on the covenant marriage law he had written — which lets couples agree to relatively strict grounds for divorce before they wed.
The talk had a profound impact on Johnson, who entered into a covenant marriage with his own wife, Kelly. It also acted as the springboard for a 25-year friendship between two men who now sit at the top of the conservative movement: Perkins as the head of the Family Research Council, a leading group on the Christian right, and Johnson as the new House speaker.
“He’s just a longtime friend and mentor and has been like a brother to me over the years,” Johnson told Semafor. Perkins told Semafor that he and Johnson prayed together ahead of the speaker election. “I am very proud of him and what he’s accomplished,” he said.
Johnson is facing his first serious test as speaker of the House as he tries to unite fractious Republicans behind a series of appropriations bills while also avoiding a government shutdown, tasks that felled his predecessor Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. Already, his conference has battled over spending, abortion, and impeachment — and that’s just his opening month.
But he may have at least one advantage as he tackles the challenge: Deep relationships within the right, and a well of goodwill from outside groups that have been a thorn in the side of some GOP leaders. Notably, these ties span across social, fiscal, and MAGA conservatives — each of which created trouble for prior speakers.
“He is the exact opposite of what we call the DC insider cartel, which you know, McCarthy represents — the lobbyists, the fat cats, and hanging out with Silicon Valley,” Steve Bannon, the former Trump adviser and wildly popular podcaster who helped lead the right wing media charge against the last speaker, told Semafor. One early story that’s endeared him to this wing: Reporting on his unusually quiet financial disclosures.
“One of the most powerful selling points to MAGA is that he doesn’t have any personal wealth,” Bannon added. “He actually is a deplorable.”
Some House Republicans have publicly and privately complained about the lack of spending cuts or conservative policy riders in the temporary government funding bill that Johnson unveiled this weekend. (Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas posted on X that his “opposition can’t be overstated). But America First Policy Institute President Brooke Rollins said she’s ready to “trust” Johnson when it comes to the “complex set of facts and personalities he’s managing.”
“At the end of the day, he’s going to do what he believes is right, and the best he can,” she added.
At some point, Johnson will have to tell each restless wing of the party that whatever compromise he secured on their priorities is the best one he could have gotten — and that leeway from the right could matter a lot when that day comes.
Kevin Roberts, the president of The Heritage Foundation, suggested Washington, D.C. could underestimate Johnson’s “underappreciated legislative skills” because of his mild personality. He said he first got to know Johnson about five years ago; at the time, Roberts was leading the Texas Public Policy Foundation, while Johnson was leading the Republican Study Committee, the longtime ideas factory for the House GOP.
“We realized that whenever we needed to talk to the Republican conference about sponsoring a bill or about killing a bad bill, Mike Johnson knew who that was.”
“The people think that unless you’ve got sharp elbows, you’re going to lose all of these battles,” Roberts added. “I don’t think that’s the case with Mike Johnson. I expect him to prevail.”
Or take the economic conservative group Club for Growth, which had a somewhat tense relationship with McCarthy. When McCarthy made his run for speaker, the organization only agreed to back the Californian if his aligned super PAC stayed out of open Republican primaries in safe districts. (The move gave groups like Club for Growth more room to influence races themselves). When McCarthy was ultimately booted, club president David McIntosh told donors he was preparing a $20 million defense fund to protect the so-called “Patriot 20” who repeatedly opposed McCarthy’s speakership.
With Johnson, Club for Growth hasn’t made public demands in return for its backing. Instead, it’s mostly just singing his praises. “Speaker Johnson has had a strong start and is uniting all Republicans to support common-sense legislation that promotes fiscal responsibility,” McIntosh told Semafor in a statement.
Room for Disagreement
While Johnson’s ties to the conservative movement may have afforded him some goodwill with the hard right, the key question is how long it will last. And not every conservative group agrees with Johnson’s strategy so far. Russ Vought, president of Center for Renewing America, attacked the speaker’s proposal in an X post for not including enough spending cuts in his continuing resolution and forcing a debate on what he characterized as “excesses on the border and within the Justice Department. “Bad bill. Bad strategy,” he said.
And even Bannon appears to be getting a bit antsy. “Speaker Johnson needs to focus on massive spending cuts — now,” he told Semafor after the continuing resolution debuted.