Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) is facing a tall task heading into the teeth of the 2024 cycle as he assumes the role of the House GOP’s top fundraiser and attempts to fill the massive shoes left behind by former Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).
Johnson has largely been able to eschew fundraising for his party since entering Congress in 2017 given his ruby-red district. Throughout his congressional career, Johnson has raised only $5.5 million.
He now must work to replace McCarthy — who raised roughly $500 million during the course of the 2022 campaign and has one of the most extensive donor networks within the GOP — with just a year to go before an election in which the House GOP’s majority is clearly at risk.
Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), chairman of the House Rules Committee and a past chairman of the House GOP campaign arm, didn’t mince words in describing the hurdles Johnson faces.
“Who was the best player on the Chicago Bulls after Michael Jordan [left]? Nobody remembers. I’m sure he’s a very good player, but McCarthy does this better than anybody else,” Cole said. “[Johnson’s] got to ramp it up pretty fast.”
The learning curve will be intense as House Republicans rely on their Speaker to raise gargantuan sums for members and candidates. McCarthy raised $78 million during the first nine months of 2023, including more than $15 million during the third quarter alone.
McCarthy has long been considered a relationship savant within Republican circles, especially with big-dollar donors that give to the Congressional Leadership Fund (CLF), the top House GOP outside group, and the American Action Network, its sister PAC.
The good news for Johnson is that McCarthy’s fundraising apparatus signaled that it is behind him. Jeff Miller, a longtime adviser and friend of the former Speaker and a top figure on K Street, announced late last week that he is all in to help Johnson maintain the House GOP majority.
One GOP lobbyist told The Hill that Johnson will do well immediately with a K Street class that wants to meet the new Speaker and fundraise hard dollars for him.
The tougher part, the lobbyist said, will be in cultivating the high-dollar donors with whom building trust over time is paramount. McCarthy excelled in this area, but he also worked on it for a decade in leadership.
A built-in fear on the House side is that some of those donors might hold back on giving to the House and instead spend their money elsewhere.
“If you’re sitting there and you’re a high-net wealth donor who cares about Washington … you’re going to say after the last 22 days, after an unknown Speaker, after a likelihood that we could be facing another potential government shutdown and the dysfunction that House Republicans have demonstrated,” the lobbyist continued. “You’re going to call [Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.)] and say, ‘I need to write you a check.’”
“You’re going to invest over there because it’s predictable, it’s rational, it’s reasonable and it’s known,” the lobbyist added. “You don’t have that in the House.”
Some Republicans are expressing confidence in Johnson.
Despite his personal fundraising numbers, they note that he exceeded his totals collected for the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) in each of the three past cycles, that he doubled fundraising for the Republican Study Committee in 2020 and that he has given to 74 members or candidates during his tenure.
Johnson is also known to be allied with House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.), who’s been a top House GOP fundraiser in recent years, though nowhere near McCarthy’s level. NRCC Chairman Richard Hudson (R-N.C.) told Punchbowl News last week that he is “optimistic” Johnson will become a “fantastic fundraiser,” but he admitted that it will take time.
Those optimistic about Johnson see a bright upside.
The new Speaker lacks enemies and has a mild-mannered persona, attributes that helped him become Speaker after his colleagues turned aside other candidates.
“The temperament in major dollar fundraising is way more important than the ideology. While Mike Johnson is just as conservative as Jim Jordan, his temperament and his tone is better and that’s what, frankly, matters to big-dollar donors,” said former Rep. Steve Stivers (R-Ohio), a former NRCC chairman. “Johnson is like an animal that has no natural predators. Those animals usually thrive.”
McCarthy also will still be active on the fundraising circuit, but nowhere near where he was while in the Speakership, as he told reporters that he is now a “free agent” after being booted from the top spot. A source told The Hill that McCarthy was back out raising money for Rep. Buddy Carter (R-Ga.) last weekend.
In addition to Miller’s help, Axiom Strategies has worked on Johnson’s campaigns in the past, and Johnson has Alexandra Kendrick of Fundraising Inc. working on his operation — a figure who is highly thought of in GOP circles.
The biggest challenge in fundraising for Johnson may just be the time crunch. Some members are questioning whether he can raise the requisite dough to protect vulnerable members next fall — and do so fast.
“Individual members can no longer count on the party being behind them as far as what Kevin would do between himself and CLF in the past,” said Rep. Dave Joyce (R-Ohio), who noted he’s finally able to not worry as much about finding backers for his two major events per year because they “sell themselves” after years in office.
“I’m more of a known commodity. That takes time,” he added. “Took me a decade.”