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Dems Banging Down the Door at Fox to Win GOP Minds

“I come from the school of thought that St. Paul didn’t just preach to the converted,” said a House Democratic aide.

Sam BrodeyNov. 15, 2019 4:15 AM ET

The morning after the first open impeachment hearing, Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI) stood in the marble hallways off the House floor for an appearance on Fox’s morning newscast, anchored by Bill Hemmer. 

As Cicilline maintained that President Trump committed a “clear abuse of power” by asking a foreign government to probe his political rival, Hemmer repeatedly pressed him: Was the congressman keeping an open mind, he asked, or had he already made up his mind to impeach the president?

“As of right now, this evidence is overwhelming, it is shocking,” said Cicilline, after Hemmer asked the question a third time. “It appears you’ve already reached your own conclusion,” replied the anchor. He wrapped with a question—on whether Cicilline believes Ukraine should investigate Hunter Biden—and a plea: “Please come back,” Hemmer said.

He agreed. And it’s not an empty promise—it’s part of a deliberate strategy for Democrats to appear more frequently on the president’s favorite network, a move that acknowledges the reality that they must rally more than the faithful in order to convince the public that impeachment is more than just a political ploy. 

“Making sure that we are communicating effectively about both the evidence that’s being presented, and the process that's being followed, is really important,” said Cicilline. “In some ways, for people who may get some information from some networks that maybe aren't accurate or may misrepresent evidence or the process… it's an opportunity for members of Congress to go on these networks and really set the record straight.”

But the effort extends beyond impeachment messaging. Since taking the House majority, Democrats have pushed lawmakers to appear on Fox News to explain their plans and points of view, in their own words, to an audience and network they know is hardly friendly to them.

Few Democrats have adopted their advice. In the weeks since the impeachment inquiry launched on Sept. 24, there have been just 19 appearances from congressional Democrats on Fox’s weekday programs, according to Media Matters for America, a cable news watchdog that is frequently critical of the network. A review of Fox appearances by The Daily Beast found that, in that time period, six House Democratic lawmakers appeared on Fox’s Sunday programming, most on the marquee morning show anchored by Chris Wallace.

Democrats’ attempt to recalibrate their Fox approach unfolds during an especially difficult moment in the relationship between the party and the network that serves as the country’s home for right-wing news and opinion. Increasingly, some Democrats look at Fox and see an operation too entwined with Trump to serve as anything resembling a legitimate news outlet; indeed, in March, the Democratic National Committee announced it would not allow the network to host a presidential primary debate on those very grounds.

Those who have embraced the idea of appearing on the network seem to check one or two boxes: lawmakers who tend to enjoy the spotlight and the sparring, like Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA); and relative moderates, like Rep. Dan Kildee (D-MI), who feel compelled to show Fox’s audience that not all House Democrats are “fire-breathing Trump haters,” as Kildee put it. 

In an interview with The Daily Beast right after a Tuesday morning appearance on Fox, Kildee explained that he not only has an obligation to represent Democrats nationally, but to also reach his constituents—many of whom, he said, watch the network. Unlike some of his Fox-going colleagues who represent deep blue areas, Kildee’s central Michigan district leans Democratic by an average of about five points.

“The reason I do it is I represent three quarters of a million people, and some big number of them watch Fox News,” said Kildee. He said he has concerns about Fox’s opinion content but added, “I have to balance that against what I think my overarching obligation is: Do the job when it's interesting and easy, and do the job when it's hard. This is one of the times when it's hard.” 

Cicilline acknowledged that the push isn’t exactly a popular proposition among some of his colleagues. 

“There are people who think by going on there, you somehow legitimize it,” Cicilline said. “The reality is, that network is going to be on television, whether we're on there or not. And so, in my view—erring on the side of making sure our viewpoint is heard and making sure the work we're doing is understood by the American people is really important.”

The outlook reflects an abiding optimism among some Democrats: that if they consistently show up on Fox then maybe—just maybe—they can start winning over some of their viewers. "I come from the school of thought that St. Paul didn't just preach to the converted,” said a House Democratic aide. “You have to go out and make your case, even when it's hostile."

Indeed, it can definitely be hostile: though the anchors are nearly always respectful to their Democratic guests, the viewers are a different story. While not a strictly representative sample, the reaction to a tweet from Cicilline announcing his Thursday morning Fox appearance was revealing: it was quickly met with over 130 replies, many sent during his time on air, and they were overwhelmingly, personally critical of him. “Dummy crat,” taunted one user. “YOURE FULL OF CRAP CICILLINE,” said another. 

And Democrats say that call volume in their congressional offices spikes dramatically whenever they are interviewed on Fox. One aide said that the calls come in so fast during and after these five-to-seven minute appearances that sometimes dozens of voicemails end up waiting from callers who didn’t make it through. The messages are usually angry. 

Still, party leaders have directly told their members that going on Fox News is a crucial part of their communications strategy. In a June email obtained by The Daily Beast, House Democrats’ messaging arm encouraged lawmakers “to engage FOX News to make sure their viewers have an opportunity to hear both sides of the story.” 

“It is a missed opportunity for Democrats if we don’t go on FOX News to discuss how Democrats are fighting For the People to lower health care costs, increase wages and clean up corruption in Washington, DC,” read the email, which also contained a list—with links to videos—to every recent Fox News appearance by a Democratic congress-member. The Democratic Policy and Communications Committee is, in fact, chaired by Cicilline and Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-MI), both of whom make a point of going on Fox News themselves. 

The DPCC message alluded to concerns about Fox’s opinion side, but insisted that legitimate news programs on the network do exist—or enough of them, at least, to justify appearing. “Not all shows are created equal,” read the email, “and there are a lot of shows on the network that are straight news without highly opinionated hosts.”

Indeed, some Fox programs have been more or less blacklisted by Democratic lawmakers. Several of them made a decision to no longer appear on Tucker Carlson’s show, for example, after a string of recent controversies, sources said. And elected Democrats are a rare commodity on Fox & Friends, the program with which Trump often begins his day.  

The vast majority of Democrats who go on Fox News appear on daytime news shows or the Sunday show hosted by Wallace, who is widely regarded by Democrats as the fairest anchor at the network. Party aides say that Hemmer and Bret Baier, both of whom came up through local TV news, are considered straight shooters; some Democrats are even happy to join more traditionally political hosts like Harris Faulkner and Dana Perino.

“The straight news shows are pretty eager to have Dems on, in part because few Dems are excited about going on Fox,” said a Democratic aide.

That’s probably the way it should be, according to Angelo Carusone, the president of Media Matters. He argued that Democrats do, in fact, legitimize Fox as a hard news network by appearing on it—seemingly undermining their own party’s official assessment that it was not fair enough to conduct a presidential debate. 

Carusone said that risk simply isn’t worth what he said were diminishing political returns for Democrats who lend their time and bipartisan cred to the network. 

“My argument to them is, what is the actual goal here?” he asked. “Is the goal to move Trump voters? If so, is the Fox audience the most persuadable version of that audience? Going to local news isn’t sexy, but that’s probably where you’re going to find moveable people.”

“But that doesn’t get you stuff in national politics,” he added. “You don’t get to be the Democrat going on Fox, speaking truth to power.”

Ask Democrats if subjecting themselves to a Fox grilling is something they want to do, and they’re unlikely to say yes. Dingell, the Michigan Democrat who recently logged four appearances on the network in one recent week, said that “want” isn’t the word she would use. But she insists it’s important for Democrats to do it anyway. 

“Trust me, I can get killed after doing Fox,” said Dingell. “But there are many people who thank me.”