'My neighbors don't watch anything else': Democrats debate whether they need Fox News more than it needs them

Unlike Sen. Elizabeth Warren, many Democratic candidates are eager to reach out to potentially skeptical voters.
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Democratic presidential candidate South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg speaks during a FOX News Channel town hall moderated by Chris Wallace on May 19, 2019, in Claremont, New Hampshire.Jessica Hill / AP

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By Alex Seitz-Wald and Benjy Sarlin

WASHINGTON — Montana Sen. Jon Tester, one of the only Democrats to win re-election in a red state last year, thinks his party needs to work harder to reach rural voters — and that includes talking to Fox News.

"Look, I'm no big fan of Fox News, but I think you got to be on it," Tester told NBC News. "Why? My neighbors don't watch anything else."

His comments came as some 2020 Democratic presidential candidates have made a point of shunning Fox, while others, including Pete Buttigieg last week, have participated in prime time town halls on the conservative network.

Tester, a farmer who delivered a speech at the Center for American Progress Ideas Conference on Wednesday on rural engagement, said Democrats can't write off conservative areas and they don't have many other options in how to reach them other than Fox.

"If you’re going to touch 'em, that's how you have to do it,” he said.

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Approaching the issue from a much bluer state, Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., also saw value in going on Fox News as long as the format allowed candidates to get their message out clearly.

"One reason I do a town hall in every county every year in Oregon is specifically to reach out to all segments in our state," Merkley told reporters. "I hear from them as they stand up to ask their questions what they hear on Fox News."

Whether or not to do interviews or hold town halls on the network is a longstanding conundrum for Democrats, going back to the early days of the Obama administration, when the then-president refused to appear on Fox for a time as its hosts pummeled his administration while taking some liberty with facts.

Leading the charge against appearing on the network, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., has called Fox "a hate-for-profit racket that gives a megaphone to racists and conspiracists." On Twitter, she said she "won't ask millions of Democratic primary voters to tune into an outlet that profits from racism and hate in order to see our candidates."

On the other side of the argument, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, have both appeared in primetime town halls.

Buttigieg used his appearance to criticize opinion hosts Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham, even as he made the case for his appearance.

"There's a reason anybody has to swallow hard and think twice before participating in this media ecosystem," he said. "But I also believe that even though some of those hosts are not always there in good faith, I think a lot of people tune into this network who do it in good faith."

Buttigieg won some plaudits from Fox News’ Brit Hume and an angry tweet from Trump, who complains the network is "moving more and more to the losing (wrong) side in covering the Dems" by hosting the candidates.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., is scheduled to appear on a Fox News town hall June 2, while former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke told reporters in Iowa this week that he would "absolutely" do one himself.

Democratic primary voters don't seem likely to punish candidates for appearing on the network, with just 17 percent saying it's not appropriate, according to a new Politico/Morning Consult poll.

But Angelo Carusone, the president of the liberal media watchdog group Media Matters, has argued that Democratic candidates risk throwing Fox a critical business lifeline during the TV industry's season when networks sell much of their advertising for the year.

“All the campaigns needed to do was wait a few more weeks," Carusone said on Twitter. "Once the ad sales period ended, the point would have been made... All that's to say, you can strongly think candidates should partner with Fox and also believe that they should have waited so as not to be used by Fox News to help them get out of trouble."