LACONIA, N.H. — Bernie Sanders, Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg and Kirsten Gillibrand hail from all over the country and fall across the spectrum of Democratic politics. But they’re linked by the latest test in the Democratic presidential primary: All decided to participate in Fox News town halls.
Whether to appear on the channel has suddenly become a polarizing decision for the sprawling field of Democratic presidential contenders, since Elizabeth Warren declined a town hall invitation and called the network a Trump-aligned “hate-for-profit racket” last week. Kamala Harris’ campaign also said she wouldn’t participate. Still other Democrats are pledging to go on the network, if they only could score an invite.
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The town halls have become an unlikely inkblot test for Democratic presidential candidates. They have carved up the field partly along the lines of who wants or needs the most press attention — but especially based on how the candidates envision their path to the presidency: appealing to Obama-Trump voters who may watch the network, or activating Democratic base supporters who believe Fox’s primetime “gives a megaphone to racists and conspiracists,” as Warren said.
“Each candidate will make their own decisions about what they want to do in their own campaigns, but I’m someone who really wants to talk to everybody and that means meeting them where they are,” Gillibrand, who’s scheduled to appear in a Fox News town hall on June 2, told POLITICO in defense of her decision. “A lot of Americans watch that network, and those are people whose votes I hope to earn as well.”
On Sunday night, Buttigieg parried questions from Fox News host Chris Wallace, facing pushback on abortion and several other issues. But the friendly crowd in a New Hampshire high school gym greeted many of Buttigieg’s answers with applause. And he took the opportunity to echo some of Warren’s comments about Fox while enjoying the network’s airtime.
“A lot of folks in my party were critical of me for even doing this with Fox News,” Buttigieg said.” And I get where that’s coming from, especially when you see what goes on with some of the opinion hosts on this network,” criticizing Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham by name.
But Buttigieg, along with the three other 2020 candidates who have done or scheduled town halls so far, is betting that there are persuadable voters who watch Fox News.
“Maybe some of it comes from being in a purple state, where you have to think about how you’re going to reach people,” Klobuchar said in an interview with POLITICO. “If you’re going to make change, if you want to be a proven progressive, [then] you do that by not just talking to the base.”
That messaging tracks with the narrative that these candidates have been selling voter to voter: They can win elections deep in Trump country. On the campaign trail, Gillibrand reminds voters that she won her first House race in a two-to-one Republican district. “”I think we need someone who will do the hard things that other people are unwilling to do,” Gillibrand said, “and sometimes that means crossing party lines and sometimes that means finding common ground.”
“Everyone is trying to make their own electability argument, and we’re seeing that through these Fox News town halls, who’s accepting them and who’s not,” said Lucinda Guinn, a Democratic strategist. “For those who’ve chosen to do it, it’s on brand for what they’re trying to say. And for those who aren’t, it’s also on brand for them.”
On Sunday afternoon, Klobuchar told Democrats at a crowded house party in Salem, N.H. that she turned 40 rural Minnesota counties blue in 2018 — counties that Trump had also won in 2016.
“I started my morning with Fox News Sunday, talking immigration and abortion. What could go wrong?” Klobuchar said to laughter and cheers among several dozen voters gathered.
“I don’t think that if you’ve got a message that serves everyone then you should shy away from sharing it everywhere,” said former Ambassador Jim Smith, who hosted Klobuchar at the house party. “Life is full of gotcha questions — deal with it.”
Sanders used his town hall – the first of any 2020 candidate – to bounce into a Midwestern swing of states Trump won in 2016, while Klobuchar landed a jab at her Democratic primary opponents during her town hall: “”The last time I checked, if you want to be a progressive and support progressives, then you’re supposed to make progress.”
Sanders, too, has argued that he can win over white, working-class voters in deep red states. The Vermont senator’s goal for his own Fox News town hall was to “enhance our argument about Bernie Sanders’ electability,” said Faiz Shakir, Sanders’ campaign manager. “He believes you need to have a credible case to try to win over people who may have voted for Trump or who are disaffected by politics.”
But some Democratic strategists said it comes down to strategy for who each contender is trying to appeal to: “The candidates who are saying ‘yes’ to the town halls are either at barely 1 percent in the polls or they’re the candidates who need a supermajority of white voters to win the nomination,” said Rebecca Katz, a Democratic consultant who works with progressive clients. “The candidates who are saying ‘no’ are the ones that are building a broader coalition of the traditional Democratic Party.”
Warren, for her part, sent a fundraising email out soon after her statement that she would not appear on the network. Fresh off trips to West Virginia and Ohio, two states where Trump is popular, Warren also argued that she doesn’t need to go through Fox News to reach Trump supporters.
Going on Fox News, for those who choose to do it, presents high risk and high reward, Democratic strategists said.
“Part of the prep going into a Fox News town hall is about creating a moment — a counterintuitive moment — where you say something that won’t necessarily resonate with the traditional Fox News audience, but it works for your base,” said Karen Dunn, a partner at the law firm Boies Schiller who prepared former President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton for presidential debates. “Then, you can go back into the primary and say, ‘I feel so strongly about this, I went and said it on Fox News.’”
And simply, an hour of TV time with millions of viewers is another persuasive reason for 2020 candidates to show up. Democratic Rep. Eric Swalwell, a frequent cable news guest, complained that Fox News rejected his town hall offer, though a spokeswoman disputed his characterization and left the door open for a future event. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard sent a fundraising email with the subject line: “I’m ready to be on Fox News,” adding that she’ll “sit down with anyone, anywhere.”
“When you’ve got enough Democratic presidential campaigns to field two soccer teams, you need to take basically any media exposure you can get, whenever and wherever you can get it,” said John Lapp, a Democratic strategist.
Fox News declined to comment on ongoing conversations with presidential campaigns about future town halls.
The Fox town halls have also turned up one other positive side effect, from the point of view of Democratic presidential candidates: They seem to trigger the president.
Hours before Buttigieg’s appearance on Sunday night, Trump tweeted that the network is “moving more and more to the losing (wrong) side in covering Dems” and “Alfred E. Newman [sic],” his nickname for Buttigieg, “will never be President.”
Buttigieg’s campaign welcomed the attention.
Holly Otterbein contributed reporting.