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Fox News is key to the 2020 election, whether liberals like it or not. Denying it a debate only hurts Democrats.

Progressives are cheering the DNC for 'punishing' the conservative network. But it's their own candidates who will suffer.
Image: Democratic National Party Chairman Tom Perez speaks at a rally in Washington on May 10, 2017.
Democratic National Party Chairman Tom Perez speaks at a rally in Washington on May 10, 2017.Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images file

Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez made a huge mistake on Wednesday by refusing to allow Fox News to moderate one of their presidential primary debates, based on the idea that it’s a propaganda outlet for President Trump.

In this conspiracy-tinged misinformation age, if Democratic candidates for the party's presidential nomination want to wrest the White House from the propagandist-in-chief, they should reject the old political playbook and bring their arguments directly to Fox viewers early in the process, because they’ll need at east some of those voters in the general election.

Without allowing Fox to host a debate for the first time since 2003, its loyal viewers who rarely flip to its competitors' channels will merely be fed chopped up, soundbite-rich and highly distorted portions of the 12 Democratic debates that do occur without watching the candidates lay out their unfiltered policy proposals, moving personal stories or defenses of their competing ideas.

Still, the Democratic party's institutional antipathy towards Fox has a history: Since 2003, only the Congressional Black Caucus attempted to set up a debate moderated by Fox (in 2007); it was later canceled when then-Sens. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., Barack Obama, D-Ill., and John Edwards, D-N.C., all refused to participate. In 2016, Fox News attempted to hold a final, tenth debate for Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., in San Francisco, but scrapped it when Clinton refused to debate, saying that her primary victory was essentially settled.

But Democratic candidates actually appear to understand that they can't ignore Fox News or its audience entirely. In the 2016 Democratic primary, both Clinton and Sanders held back- to- back town halls on Fox ahead of the Michigan primary, and the sky didn’t fall. (In fact, they were kind of boring, because the two didn’t lash out at each other but presented themselves in a fairly unvarnished way to voters in that industrial midwestern state.)

And, back in April of 2008, with the Democratic primary still raging between Obama and Clinton, Obama ended his de facto boycott of Fox by appearing on Fox News Sunday ahead of the primary contests in North Carolina and Indiana — two blue collar states that proved crucial to his capturing the White House later that year.

The boycott of Fox isn’t sitting well with some rank and file Democrats, who aren’t happy with the party seeming to become more insular.

“If I was there I would do it," Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., a past chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, told me at the Capitol after the announcement came out Wednesday. "The point is you hit everybody you can hit, who is a potential voter."

Despite liberals' concerns, the Fox proposal to host one of the prime time debates wasn’t about letting its most controversial anchors (and biggest Trump cheerleaders) like Sean Hannity or Tucker Carlson moderate. Hard-hitting and largely-respected news anchors Bret Baier, Martha MacCallum and Chris Wallace were offered to the DNC. Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., is a frequent guest on the latter's show, and has only good things to say about him.

"I know he's going to be fair, and he's going to give me time to give my answer," said Cardin, who is well aware Fox has become basically a mouthpiece for Trump. “All audiences, whether it's NBC or Fox, should have diverse balanced views from the people who go on the show."

With Democrats hoping to make new gains in 2020 in states that went for Trump in 2016 — think Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan — and in others that have been red throughout our lifetimes (think Texas), they can't afford to ignore Fox just to please their base. Which is why Republicans are gleeful.

“Can you win Texas without going on Fox News?” I asked former Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of the Lone Star State.

"No," Cornyn replied through a smirk and with a laugh. "Do they just talk to each other? It's hard to have much of a debate or convince anyone of anything if you're just talking to the already-converted."

Pew data shows that 4 percent of Clinton voters in the 2016 primaries were regular Fox News viewers; and other studies show that Fox is particularly adept — moreso than MSNBC, even — at persuading marginal Democratic voters. Notably, the same study that shows a percentage of Clinton voters watched Fox news says that 40 percent of Trump voters were dedicated viewers — suggesting that a decent percentage of the voters Democrats need to win over are watching Fox.

So, though it's popular among many progressives to see Fox News denied a Democratic debate as the appropriate "punishment" for the loathed network, Republicans are actually laughing at Perez and the DNC for this unforced error. It's too bad that liberals aren't listening.