During the fight this past month about whether to make Rep Jim Jordan (R-OH) speaker of the House, I asked Rep Juan Ciscomani (R-AZ) if he would support Mr Jordan.
Mr Jordan, of course, is a hard-right ideologue who defended Donald Trump at every turn, whereas Mr Ciscomani was one of 18 Republicans who represent districts that voted for Joe Biden in 2020.
But the Arizona Republican – whom Republicans wanted to present as a new face of the GOP as a Mexican-born citizen of the United States – remained tight-lipped about whom he would support.
“What I've told my constituents is that I don't work for the speaker, I work with the speaker, whoever the speaker is,” he told me. I was surprised when he and fellow Biden district Republican Marc Molinaro of New York announced they’d support Mr Jordan for the coveted role.
Mr Molinaro’s support also came as a surprise not just because he represented a Biden district but because of the fact that his fellow New York Republican Reps Mike Lawler, Anthony D’Esposito, Andrew Garbarino and Nick LaLota all opposed Mr Jordan. When I caught Mr Lawler after Mr Jordan’s humiliation and ultimate withdrawal from the speaker’s race, he said he opposed Mr Jordan simply because Kevin McCarthy shouldn’t have been removed as speaker.
Cut to a week and a day later when every Republican in the chamber voted to make Rep Mike Johnson Speaker of the House after a protracted 22-day civil war.
Mr Lawler, for his part, was all smiles when I talked to him after the vote on Wednesday.
“He's a man of decency, he's a man of integrity, someone that is unfailingly kind to everyone within the conference,” Mr Lawler told me of the new speaker.
But getting behind someone as staunchly hard-right as Mr Johnson is a huge gamble for Republicans.
Mr Jordan and Mr Johnson have near-identical records and, if anything, Mr Johnson is an even more potent force on the right. Where Mr Jordan simply plotted with Donald Trump to overturn the election and is little more than a bloviator who never took the bar exam to practice law, Mr Johnson led an amicus brief seeking to overturn the election.
Mr Johnson’s ascent to the top job in the House does not just mean he is the leader of the lower chamber of Congress and third-in-line to the presidency; he is now the highest-ranking Republican in the country.
Throughout the 2010s, Republicans tied Democrats, including moderates who voted against her, to former House speaker Nancy Pelosi, whom they depicted as an out-of-touch liberal from San Francisco, long a synecdoche for an enemy of conservative values.
And it worked swimmingly for them; throughout that decade, Republicans turned the rural white Democrat into an endangered species in the House, despite the fact many of them were more moderate Blue Dog Democrats.
Democrats these days don’t win as many Republican districts anymore. The smart folks at the Centre for Politics at the University of Virginia found that while 18 Republicans represent districts Mr Biden won, only five Democrats won seats in districts where Donald Trump won.
But the suburban districts that once voted for Republicans in places like Arizona, Pennsylvania, California, Georgia and Texas have changed drastically. Mr Trump’s presidency – and the fact Democrats nominated relatively moderate presidential candidates – started moving these areas into the blue column. The Dobbs v Jackson decision last year which overturned the right to have an abortion in Roe v Wade further repelled the suburbs away from Republicans.
Mr Johnson is a hardliner on abortion, saying he looks forward to the day there are none. His ascent comes after Republicans radically underperformed in the 2022 midterm elections, largely in response to the Dobbs decision, which Mr Johnson praised.
Democrats now will likely try to tie every Republican to Mr Johnson. And the argument of folks like him who say that they don’t work for a speaker might ring hollow for voters when he enthusiastically backed Mr Johnson.
And Republicans seem to be trying to create some distance from the rest of their party now that the speaker fracas is over. On Thursday, Mr D’Esposito, who represents Long Island, introduced legislation to expel embattled Rep George Santos, a fellow Long Island Republican, from Congress. But it’s unclear if that will give him the distance he needs to win this time next year.