Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney has observed a difference in reactions to his appearances on different cable television networks.
“In my district, when I go on Rachel Maddow, I hear about it from my liberal friends,” Maloney said. “When I go on Fox, I hear about it from everyone else.”
Since President Donald Trump’s electoral victory in November, Maloney has been one of a handful of Democrats who are trying anew to win over potential voters by appearing on Fox News, the highly rated cable network that has long been shunned by many Democrats over its programming, which often leans to the right.
But several younger members of Congress like Maloney and Rep. Eric Swalwell have made regular appearances on the network, hoping to bring the Democratic message to voters they know are deeply sceptical of Democrats and rarely hear from the lawmakers unfiltered.
Over the past several months, Maloney has jousted repeatedly with Tucker Carlson, the conservative Fox News commentator whom media critic Jack Schafer described as “skilled at corroding a guest’s argument with sarcasm.”
The New York congressman told Business Insider that he was able to effectively deliver his message on Carlson’s show despite the host’s reputation and that he wasn’t sure why many Democratic leaders still avoided right-wing media, saying there was a larger appetite among the younger members for taking the party’s message onto adversarial media.
“If the worst-case scenario is they keep voting against us, well that’s the status quo,” Maloney said. “So what do you say we go, pull a few over to our side so we can stop sitting around and playing defence, and get some things done. Maybe that’s an attitude that’s more prevalent among those of us who haven’t been doing it so long, I don’t know.”
In the months since Trump assumed the presidency, Democrats have pondered how best to reconnect with many former supporters who stayed home, voted third party, or cast ballots for Trump. Efforts include attempts to reach voters digitally and test new policy ideas.
But that outreach largely hasn’t extended to Rupert Murdoch’s cable news network, which has been largely shunned by the top figures in the party.
By Business Insider’s count, since Trump took office in January, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has appeared exclusively on CNN seven times and on MSNBC six times, while she hasn’t appeared on Fox News since the Democratic National Convention in July 2016. Senate Minority Leader Schumer has appeared eight times on CNN and nine times on MSNBC since Trump’s inauguration, while appearing on Fox News just once in the same time period. Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin has appeared seven times on CNN and more than 20 times on MSNBC, compared with three times on Fox News. House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer has appeared three times on CNN, six times on MSNBC, and twice on Fox News. None have appeared on prime-time Fox News shows.
Though Fox News’ audience skews right, the network casts the longest shadow in cable television.
Pew Research Center found that voters overwhelmingly favoured Fox News as the most important source for 2016 election news, above all other media outlets and other sources like Facebook. Among Trump voters, only 8% said CNN was their primary news source, while MSNBC didn’t even register.
Despite several scandals that have rocked the prime-time lineup, as well as a surge in cable viewership on MSNBC, particularly for host Rachel Maddow’s show, Fox News remains the dominant network, with its prime-time programs pulling in millions more than CNN and MSNBC.
The risk of Democrats talking to themselves is not lost on some who appear on the network.
Pablo Manriquez, a former Democratic National Committee staffer who helps train and book guests for appearances on cable news, said the party had “no interest in having a Fox News strategy.”
“This is where growth is,” said Manriquez, who has been booking himself on Fox News since December. “While the same people who lost the election are on CNN and MSNBC every day.”
For some Democrats, though, interviewing on Fox News remains an endeavour with lots of risk and little to gain.
Many Fox News personalities have relentlessly flacked for Republican politicians since the network’s inception, yet critics say Trump’s boosters on the network have created an alternative media universe that excuses the president for any and all potential ethical mistakes.
Fox News hosts blamed everyone but the president for the GOP healthcare bill’s failure, dismissed Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with a Kremlin-connected lawyer, made false claims about former FBI Director James Comey, and constantly blasted other media outlets over their coverage of Trump.
Moreover, Democrats have long been wary of some hosts’ desire to further a conservative agenda by making Democrats look, as Salon put it over a decade ago, like “scary liberals, losers, or enablers.”
Democrats like Rep. Brad Sherman, one of just two national Democratic elected officials who have appeared on Fox News during prime time this month, recognise that highest-rated shows rarely extend invitations to Democratic members of Congress to talk about the issues Democrats want to discuss. As Sherman recalls, the one time he tried to personally book himself on Carlson, the Fox News anchor didn’t return his call.
“We put out a press release, ‘Sherman supports Obamacare,’ then we follow it up and say, ‘Tucker, put Sherman on — he wants to explain why the new Senate bill is even meaner than the old Senate bill, which is meaner than the House bill,'” Sherman said. “They’re not going to put me on. I don’t pick the topics, I don’t pick the interviewer, I don’t pick the audience, I don’t have any illusions. But again, if you’re going to spread the gospel, you have to talk to the unconverted.”
But Sherman says many members are sick of being in the minority and are looking for new ways to win future elections.
“My political consultant does not advise me to do this,” Sherman said. “But I’ve been in the minority so long — 16 out of 20 years. In the majority, you can talk to your colleagues and pass a bill. In the minority, you have to change the national conversation.”