Republicans had a secret weapon in the Florida recount fight

How a GOP lawyer managed politics, the law and big egos to defend Rick Scott.
Volunteers look at ballots during a hand recount at the Supervisor of Elections Service Center in Palm Beach, Florida, on Sunday.
Volunteers look at ballots during a hand recount at the Supervisor of Elections Service Center in Palm Beach, Florida, on Sunday.Saul Martinez / Getty Images

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By Jonathan Allen

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Jessica Furst Johnson was supposed to fly from Washington to Orlando this week for a post-election Walt Disney World vacation with her husband and their two small children.

Instead, Johnson, the 37-year-old general counsel to the National Republican Senatorial Committee, found herself in Tallahassee, quarterbacking the GOP's legal response to the two-recount Senate contest between the Democratic incumbent, Bill Nelson, and Gov. Rick Scott, his Republican challenger.

Her opposite number in this fight, Democratic super-lawyer Marc Elias, had more than 50,000 Twitter followers, a resume that includes serving as the general counsel on two presidential campaigns and a ream of profiles in national publications. Meanwhile, Johnson operated in relative obscurity.

The main stakes for the two lawyers — and their parties — were always the same: a U.S. Senate seat and the framework that will govern how Florida election laws are applied and interpreted in the 2020 presidential election.

But for Johnson — a Sarasota native, a University of Florida law school graduate and an admirer of Scott's — there was another dimension to the fight.

"This is personal for me," she said in a telephone interview with NBC News on Friday.

Jessica Furst Johnson led the Scott legal effort.Courtesy of the National Republican Senatorial Committee

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Now that Nelson has conceded, Scott can thank Johnson and her army of GOP lawyers for helping preserve his victory by largely turning back the sprawling Democratic legal effort to challenge the actions of election officials and various aspects of Florida statutes.

Though Johnson is one of Washington's foremost experts on election law, she's quick to point out that she's not a litigator.

"I have mad respect for the people who have done the hand-to-hand combat," she said, spreading credit.

Instead, as she downed almond-milk lattes, Johnson managed the battle plan, which Republicans say included more than 100 paid and volunteer lawyers working in courtrooms and at recount centers across the state. Except for a 28-hour roundtrip scramble back to Washington to see her children, Johnson choreographed the response from Scott's campaign headquarters.

Friends say Johnson was the right person in the right place at the right time for Scott and the GOP because she's able to keep her cool in the midst of chaos, manage people and tasks, and analyze both legal and political questions with knowledge and judgment.

"She's very even-keeled and always easy to work with," said veteran political lawyer Elliot Berke, who is president of the Republican National Lawyers Association.

Brad Todd, a senior adviser to the Scott campaign, said Johnson was a godsend as the battle for the Senate seat moved from voting booths to courtrooms and election supervisors' offices.

"The most important thing about Jessica is she is someone who can manage a lot of different projects with very different personalities and have none of them upset at her. Politics is full of people who create conflict as a tool, and Jessica does not create conflict," Todd said.

Early in her career, Johnson was a protege of Cleta Mitchell, one of the GOP's top election lawyers over the last quarter of a century. More recently, she worked at the National Republican Congressional Committee, where she started as general counsel but later added duties as deputy executive director and ultimately took charge of the group's independent expenditure arm.

NRSC Communications Director Katie Martin, who also worked with Johnson at the NRCC, said her mix of political and legal talents is truly rare.

"I’ve been watching her be a badass for a while now," Martin said. "She's someone who has a political mind, who sees the optics of every situation."

Johnson's political tuner went off on the morning of Nov. 8 — two days after Election Day — when she saw a cluster of tweets about Elias signing up to help Nelson. Though she had made preparations for potential legal skirmishes in tight races across the country over the previous several months, Johnson immediately grasped that his engagement signaled a war.

In short order, she called her husband, Todd, who works for the Republican Governors Association, to make sure the kids would be taken care of and booked a flight.

"I knew I was going to Florida," she said.