The House G.O.P Has Its Leader. But Can He Be a Rainmaker?

The decision to oust Kevin McCarthy as speaker and replace him with a little-known congressman, Mike Johnson of Louisiana, has left a glaring financial gap for House Republicans headed into 2024 when the party has to defend its narrow and fragile majority.

Mr. McCarthy’s political operation brought in more than 100 times the amount of money that Mr. Johnson has collected so far in 2023 — $78 million to roughly $608,000, according to federal records and public disclosures. And in Mr. Johnson’s entire congressional career, dating to his first run in 2016, the Louisiana Republican has raised a total of $6.1 million — less than Mr. McCarthy’s average monthly take this year.

The willingness of House Republicans to trade a party rainmaker for a member who has raised less than some more junior colleagues has caused a deep sense of uncertainty at the highest levels of the conference, even as relieved lawmakers united behind Mr. Johnson to end weeks of political paralysis.

“Mike Johnson is not known to be a prolific fund-raiser. He’s raised money to meet his needs in a noncompetitive seat in Louisiana,” said Tom Reynolds, a former New York congressman and past chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. “It remains to be seen: Can he raise money to help the members when it comes time next year?”

In the days since he took the gavel, Mr. Johnson called Dan Conston, the president of the Congressional Leadership Fund, the main House Republican super PAC, and is expected to play a significant role in that group’s fund-raising going forward. And in a sign of the urgency of the political task ahead — in addition to governing — Mr. Johnson, in a meeting first reported by Punchbowl News, visited the headquarters of the National Republican Congressional Committee within hours of his swearing-in on Wednesday.

Mr. Johnson has large financial shoes to fill.

Mr. McCarthy has been directly responsible for 10 to 25 percent of all the campaign money raised this year by almost all of the House’s most vulnerable Republicans, according to an analysis of federal records.

Mr. McCarthy’s transfers to the party’s House campaign committee amount to more than 25 percent of the $70.1 million raised this year. Then there are the hundreds of millions of dollars that Mr. McCarthy has helped raise in recent years for the House G.O.P.’s main super PAC, which has been closely aligned with him.

In a brief interview Friday, Mr. McCarthy pledged to “help the party to bridge the gap” in the coming weeks and months as the new speaker takes over, though it is not yet clear if he will keep up the dizzying pace of travel that his team said had taken him to 22 states and 85 cities this year.

“I helped build the majority, and I’m not going to walk away from it,” Mr. McCarthy said.

One person who has been in touch with the new speaker, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe a private conversation, said Mr. Johnson understood the weight of his new responsibility, not just legislatively but also politically.

Adding to the sense of uncertainty among top Republicans is how Mr. Johnson’s hard-line positions on social issues — his opposition to gay marriage and strict anti-abortion stance — will play with some of the party’s key financiers, who tend to be more moderate than the party base.

Representative Mike Johnson won the votes of his caucus. Now he’ll have to deliver on the fund-raising front.Credit…Haiyun Jiang for The New York Times

Allies of Mr. Johnson predicted he would quickly take to the money circuit. To some extent, the perpetual money machine that is modern Washington has already begun to adjust to the new Republican order.

“The event we do for him will probably be the easiest money I’ve raised all cycle,” said Susan Hirschmann, a Republican lobbyist who leads the firm Williams & Jensen and is already organizing a fund-raiser. “I can tell you my phone has been ringing off the hook with people wanting to help raise money for Speaker Johnson.”

Brian Ballard, who runs another major lobbying firm, said that the new speaker’s team had already reached out and they were now organizing an event this fall. “The world turns, and that role requires him to take that on,” Mr. Ballard said. “My clients are very excited to work with him. It’s seamless as far as I’m concerned.”

Still, it is not just the prodigious nature of Mr. McCarthy’s fund-raising but also the specific methods he used to raise and distribute money that make his efforts hard to replicate. His political operation built the war chests of his party’s most vulnerable incumbents — a hole that the new speaker is unlikely to be able to fill in the months leading up to next year’s crucial elections.

Federal records show that for 21 of the 24 most vulnerable Republican incumbents, Mr. McCarthy was directly responsible for at least 10 percent of their fund-raising in the first nine months of 2023. That is an unusually significant share to have come from a single source, and Mr. McCarthy did so by bundling large numbers of contributions before distributing them to his colleagues.

For some members, the McCarthy share was closer to 25 percent of what they raised.

Representative Brandon Williams of New York has received about $336,000 from Mr. McCarthy-linked committees this year — roughly one-quarter of the $1.3 million he has raised. Representative John Duarte of California, who won one of the nation’s narrowest contests in 2022, has received roughly $402,000 from the former speaker’s operation — more than 23 percent of the $1.7 million he has raised.

The McCarthy team had intended to soon pivot to similarly fill the coffers of the Republican challengers running against Democratic incumbents, according to three people familiar with the plans, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak for Mr. McCarthy’s political operation, but the future of those efforts is now unclear.

Even with Mr. McCarthy’s efforts, the National Republican Congressional Committee has trailed its Democratic counterpart in fund-raising this year, $70.1 million to $93.2 million, and entered October with about $8 million less in the bank.

“Clearly Republicans were extremely dependent on Kevin McCarthy for their fund-raising,” said Representative Suzan DelBene of Washington, who chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “This does put them in a very difficult position.”

Mr. McCarthy spent more than a decade carefully tending to donor relationships as he rose through the ranks of the House. Mr. Johnson is entering the speakership with neither a significant large donor network nor a devoted grass-roots following. His campaign account had brought it less than $300,000 in donations of less than $200 in his congressional career.

And while he served as the chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, an internal House conservative caucus, he has not been a fixture on the Washington fund-raising circuit and has not chaired a standing committee.

Jeff Brooks, a partner at the lobbying firm Adams and Reese who knows Mr. Johnson, said that “he’s got the personality” to succeed. “There is going to be a gap, no question,” he said of replacing Mr. McCarthy’s money. “But Mike is going to close it quickly.”

Mr. Johnson’s office declined to comment.

For now, Representative Steve Scalise, the majority leader and a fellow Louisiana Republican, is expected to help Mr. Johnson as he builds out his operation.

“When someone like Mike gets into this very important role, very suddenly I think it’s fair to say — obviously a person in that position needs to careful about who’s really loyal and committed to him versus being opportunist,” said David Vitter, a former senator from Louisiana and now a lobbyist who has known Mr. Johnson for years. “I know Mike trusts Steve and Steve’s team in general.”

Some in Washington have scoffed that one of Mr. McCarthy’s top money men, Jeff Miller, a lobbyist who has been a prolific fund-raiser for years, said in Politico that he would help Mr. Johnson.

“Very selfless of him,” Mr. Vitter said with a laugh.

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