A Fox prime-time power struggle mounts over Texas gubernatorial race

Greg Abbott with Hannity and Carlson

Citation Andrea Austria / Media Matters

A power struggle over the Republican Party’s direction is playing out in Fox News’ prime-time block.

Fox host Tucker Carlson issued a public ultimatum to Greg Abbott during Tuesday night’s broadcast, demanding that the Texas governor come on his show and explain why he has not deployed the state’s National Guard to the border to “save the rest of us” from the migrant “invasion” entering from Mexico. If he failed to do so, Carlson warned that he would host Abbott’s primary opponents instead as soon as Wednesday. 

Within the hour, Abbott was talking to Fox’s audience -- not on Carlson’s show, but on the program of fellow prime-time host Sean Hannity. Abbott had the opportunity to respond to Hannity’s softball version of Carlson’s questions about the National Guard, over a laughably propagandistic chyron that read, “Gov Abbott On How He Is Taking Bold And Decisive Action To Address Border Chaos Amid Biden Admin’s Neglect.”

Abbott is a fixture on Hannity’s show, making at least 15 appearances on the program this year alone, more than almost any other would-be 2024 GOP presidential candidate. He’s also repeatedly appeared on the third Fox prime-time show, The Ingraham Angle, most recently on Monday. But Carlson claimed on Wednesday that Abbott has “refused” to come on his show despite repeated requests, and indeed, he has not appeared on the program since December.

The prime-time divide over Abbott’s performance points broader shifts in the GOP and at Fox, as ethnonationalist and traditionalist factions of the conservative movement struggle for power. 

Carlson and Hannity are both influential forces within the Republican Party, but they use their programs in very different ways. 

Hannity is first and foremost a GOP mouthpiece -- the broadcast he puts on is rarely distinguishable from what you would expect to hear from the Republican National Committee. Hannity has traditional conservative policy preferences, supporting lower taxes, laxer regulation, and a hawkish foreign policy. But he largely runs his show as a showcase for the party’s talent, helping Republican officials promote their talking points and defend themselves from criticism. When Hannity criticizes Republican leaders, it is usually for their insufficient loyalty to former President Donald Trump. 

Carlson, by contrast, actively seeks to move the Republican Party in the direction of his show, which at this point resembles a toxic mix of the conspiracy theories of Infowars, the xenophobia of Stormfront, and the authoritarian zeal of Viktor Orbán’s Hungary. What’s more, Carlson has proven remarkably effective in shaping the GOP’s policy preferences and messaging. Rather than shifting with the party line, like Hannity, he regularly lashes out at Republican leaders who stray from his own, denouncing those who offer solidarity to Black people protesting racism and producing brutal interviews with GOP governors who prove insufficiently willing to use the power of their states against trans people. 

Abbott went on Hannity’s show on Tuesday knowing that he was unlikely to face tough questions, having previously used that platform to tout his state’s COVID-19 response, denounce President Joe Biden’s immigration policy, and falsely blame clean energy for Texas’ power grid woes. And indeed, Hannity introduced the interview by describing Abbott as “standing strong” and “doing everything in his power to protect Texans.” His question about the National Guard effectively served Abbott up with why it would be a bad idea to pursue the strategy Carlson had pushed for. And his final question looked like this:

SEAN HANNITY (HOST): So, you're spending $3 billion of Texas money to secure Texas laws, but [the Biden administration is] not enforcing federal law. And the federal law would allow for the deportation.

Is there anything else that Texas can do to stop people from actually crossing the border wherein they're then to get the protection of the Biden administration? Does that make sense to you?

In other words, you're doing your part, you're enforcing your laws, they're not enforcing the laws of the land. They're just -- you know, I guess they pick and choose which laws they want to enforce. So then once they're on American territory, it's their jurisdiction to deport them, is it not? And you don't have a say over that.

That is much better treatment than Abbott would presumably receive from Carlson, who is obsessed with the white nationalist conspiracy theory that Democrats are deliberately importing migrants for political gain and said on Tuesday that Abbott is “the one man who can stop this.” And now, Carlson is threatening to host his primary challengers, a motley group that includes Blaze TV host Chad Prather and Allen West, a former state party chair and Fox contributor notorious for anti-Muslim bigotry.

If Carlson does follow through on that threat, it would mark a rare breach of what seems like a Fox prime-time truce, in which Carlson and Hannity avoid coming down on different sides of primary campaigns. 

Carlson, for example, champions and regularly hosts venture capitalist J.D. Vance’s candidacy for a U.S. Senate seat in Ohio without Hannity responding by bringing on Vance’s primary opponents like former state party chair Jane Timken or the extremely online Josh Mandel. 

Hannity, meanwhile, effectively pulled former NFL player Herschel Walker into the race for U.S. Senate in Georgia through frequent appearances on the program, but Carlson hasn’t hosted other candidates there. 

Whether Abbott caves and comes on Carlson’s show, or he doesn’t and Carlson follows through by inviting his primary opponents, the Fox News host has laid down a marker: He is comfortable enough in his power over the GOP and his own network to issue what he thinks are meaningful ultimatums to the governor of the most populous red state, who is also one of his prime-time colleagues’ favorites.

Update (9/23/21): Carlson carried out his threat on Wednesday night, hosting Allen West, whom he introduced as an Abbott primary challenger who “retired from the U.S. Army as lieutenant colonel.” (West, an unhinged anti-Muslim bigot, was removed from his command and allowed to retire from the military in 2003 after pleading guilty to assaulting an Iraqi detainee during an interrogation.)

Video file

Citation From the September 22, 2021, edition of Fox News' Tucker Carlson Tonight

West argued that as governor, he would send thousands of National Guard troops to the border, establish a border control zone, strip the licenses of nonprofits that aid undocumented immigrants, and “declare the cartels as transnational narco-criminal terrorist organizations.” When Carlson asked why such “sensible” policies hadn’t already been implemented, West replied by taking a thinly veiled shot at Hannity, saying, “You would have to ask the person that’s currently governor that obviously refused to go on your show because on other shows where he feels he has a nice listening audience.”

Carlson concluded the interview by saying, “I think you just won a lot of support, Col. Allen West, certainly from me.”

For his part, Hannity rose to Abbott’s defense on his program the following hour.