OPINION | Mulvaney: Candidate quality, not the Speaker, will decide who controls the House

Apparently, the big story last week was not that the House finally elected Mike Johnson to replace Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) as Speaker. The big story was that the Republicans, by electing Johnson, had somehow effectively lost the majority in the upcoming 2024 elections.

It’s probably no surprise that that is the talking point from the Democrats. My (educated) guess is that the message would have been exactly that regardless of who the GOP finally settled on. One can almost hear House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) on the Sunday talk shows opining, “When the Republicans picked MAGA Jesus as Speaker, they in effect lost the majority, as his harsh messaging on things like abortion and gay marriage will alienate swing voters.”

But, after all, that is what the Democrats should be saying. Politics is a team sport. Less expected, perhaps, was the echoing of those same talking points by media outlets not considered especially left-leaning. The Wall Street Journal, for example, blared over the weekend that the “Speaker Choice Puts GOP Majority at Risk.” That was supposedly a news story, on Page A1, not an opinion piece on the back pages. Perhaps the Journal has become so anti-Trump that anyone even marginally aligned with him must be the devil as well.

Mike Johnson may well be the most conservative person to hold the gavel in a long time. He has taken uncompromising positions on many hot-button social issues. He might even be able to convince some Republicans to spend less taxpayers’ money. As a right-winger myself, I welcome all of that, even if I worry about his ability to manage an unwieldy and bitterly divided institution.

And yes, I do worry about his ability to raise the money expected by someone at the pinnacle of party leadership. But I am certainly not worried that his election will affect House control.

Here’s why: Mike Johnson, as Speaker, will have almost zero direct impact, for good or for ill, on how elections will go in swing districts.

Take it from someone who won in one of them.

Today, demographics and redistricting have rendered South Carolina’s 5th District reliably red. But it wasn’t always that way. When I first ran in 2010, the seat had been under Democratic control for more than 120 years. The incumbent Democrat at that time, Rep. John Spratt, had won 14 consecutive elections. In 2008, he had won by more than 25 percentage points.

That meant that I had to convince a lot of people to change their minds — to swing away from Democrat and over to Republican. I did that by figuring out how to talk to the voters we refer to as independent, undecided or swing, take your choice.

I spent almost a year doing that. And I can assure you that not once — not one single time — did anyone in the district ask me about John Boehner (R-Ohio), who was then the Republican House leader.

They wanted to talk about what I stood for as compared to the other guy. They wanted to talk about spending and debt and health care and the southern border. As it turns out, voters in swing districts care about issues. They generally don’t care about party leadership contests.

If the Republicans can find candidates who can talk about issues in swing districts, they can win. If not, they will likely lose. Either way, Mike Johnson won’t be driving any outcomes.

Democrats will want swing voters to focus on Johnson’s vote against certifying the 2020 election.They hope to make him a central focus of their “Vote for us or else democracy will die” 2024 campaign theme.

While that might gain some traction with independent voters if Donald Trump is at the top of the Republican ticket, I seriously doubt that Mike Johnson will move the needle one way or the other. After all, voting against election certification is something that high profile Democrats have done for years. I doubt that Maxine Waters’s attempt to stop the House from certifying the 2016 election moved a single voter in swingy Northern Virginia, South Florida, or coastal New Hampshire.

Personally, I am more interested in what Johnson does tomorrow than what he did yesterday. I imagine I’m not the only person who feels that way.

I remember talking to President Trump in the Oval Office the day after the Democrats won the special election in Alabama to replace Sen. Jeff Sessions (R). “How could we lose Alabama?” he asked, with more than a little incredulity. My response was simple: “Mr. President, we had a bad candidate. And bad candidates can lose. Even in Alabama.”

As it was with the last several Senate elections, candidate quality will dictate control of the House in the next Congress. The identity of the Speaker will not.

Mick Mulvaney, a former congressman from South Carolina, is a contributor to NewsNation. He served as director of the Office of Management and Budget, director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and acting White House chief of staff under President Donald Trump.

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