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New House speaker ramps up fundraising one year from election

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A year from now, Americans will head to the polls and decide control of the House of Representatives. Newly elected Republican Speaker Mike Johnson will be expected to raise millions and drive the strategy that will ensure the GOP retains its majority in 2024, but Democrats already say Johnson's record will be an issue in the election. NPR congressional correspondent Deirdre Walsh reports.

DEIRDRE WALSH, BYLINE: Democrats see an opportunity to make Speaker Mike Johnson a central part of their strategy to flip control of the House.

SUZAN DELBENE: We may have a new face, but the extremism is still there. In fact, he may be even more extreme.

WALSH: That's Suzan DelBene, the head of the House Democrats Campaign Committee. She says voters may not know who Johnson is, but thinks the more people learn, the more it could be a liability for Republicans in swing districts across the country.

DELBENE: So while he may be unknown to folks, I think a lot is coming out every day about where he stands and how extreme he is, you know, as someone who wanted to overturn the 2020 election, someone who wants to see a nationwide abortion ban, someone who wants to cut Social Security and Medicare.

WALSH: Republicans ran ads for years linking vulnerable Democrats to then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Pelosi's San Francisco values are wrong for America.

WALSH: But GOP strategist Ken Spain says it's hard for Democrats to do that for Johnson.

KEN SPAIN: He is an unknown quantity to the vast majority of American voters. He's less defined and therefore is not a political vulnerability, at least not yet.

WALSH: Spain says the new speaker faces pressure to avoid any hint of the drama that led to his election.

SPAIN: The one way the speaker can become a political vulnerability is if the majority cannot function, and we've already gotten a taste of that over the course of the last several weeks. If that continues to spill into 2024, it could become incredibly problematic.

WALSH: Spain says previous GOP speakers had much closer ties to CEOs. That was a key asset in raising big dollars. But Johnson seems to have close ties with the grass roots. The speaker raised $1 million in just the first weekend after he won the gavel. Former Speaker Kevin McCarthy raised about 500 million in the last election. John Duarte, who represents a competitive district in California, says Johnson has big shoes to fill.

JOHN DUARTE: Kevin McCarthy was by far the king of Republican fundraising. I don't know that we can expect the same out of Mike Johnson right away, but he's done a great job - his acceptance speech, his interviews. I mean, he's a very likable guy.

WALSH: The battle for the House will take place in roughly 60 of the 435 House districts. Mike Garcia is another California Republican in a top-tier race, and he admits Johnson is further to the right than he is.

MIKE GARCIA: He's more conservative than many are in the conference, so his personal positions on the things don't matter as much as, what does the legislative agenda look like, and what are the things that we're going to be bringing to the floor?

WALSH: Nebraska Congressman Don Bacon, a moderate, says what a lot of other centrists say. They downplay Johnson's positions on issues but say his tone will connect with voters.

DON BACON: His message is unifying. It's positive. It's not demonizing the other side.

WALSH: Another vulnerable Republican, Marc Molinaro from New York, says Johnson says his new role as speaker means he will include input from more moderates in deciding the agenda.

MARC MOLINARO: You know, we're going to have differences. But what he assured me and what it very convincing for me is that members like me and voices like those I represent will be at the table as we develop policy, and that's what's important.

WALSH: But DelBene says Democrats want to make sure voters don't see Johnson as a kinder, softer, more moderate speaker. They'll spend the next year trying to paint him and every Republican as an extremist. Deirdre Walsh, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Deirdre Walsh is the congress editor for NPR's Washington Desk.