Ron DeSantis’ Fox-fueled rise to GOP presidential contender


Twice this month, Fox News viewers who tuned in for their regular programming witnessed a remarkable spectacle: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis conducting official government business as an exclusive for the right-wing propaganda network. On May 6, the Republican signed the state’s new voter suppression bill during a live appearance on Fox & Friends, after locking the rest of the press out of the proceedings. Then on Wednesday night, during a joint interview on The Ingraham Angle, he informed a Florida couple arrested for violating local mask ordinances that he was granting them a reprieve.

These stunts, while bizarre, are not necessarily surprising. DeSantis has deliberately embarked on a Fox-focused political strategy that has fueled his rise from backbench member of the House Republican caucus to would-be presidential contender.

DeSantis has appeared on Fox’s weekday programming at least 173 times since August 2017, according to Media Matters’ database of cable news programming. He has made only three appearances on CNN’s weekday programming during that period, with the most recent coming in December 2017, and one in August 2017 on MSNBC.

When DeSantis announced his gubernatorial run on Fox & Friends back in early 2018, he appeared to be in for an uphill fight. An ambitious but relatively undistinguished third-term member of Congress, he was facing off in the Republican primary with Florida Agricultural Commissioner Adam Putnam, considered an establishment favorite and rising star who had been winning elections in the state for 22 years.

DeSantis countered Putnam’s advantages with a simple strategy: He cozied up to Fox. “DeSantis’ campaign research made one thing clear: a Fox first campaign was superior to a Florida first effort,” Politico’s Marc Caputo wrote in an eye-opening report following the congressman’s primary victory. “For Republicans, all politics isn’t local -- it’s on Fox News.”

The congressman made more than 100 appearances on Fox News and Fox Business during his primary run, which his team valued at $9.3 million. In addition to regular turns on prime-time shows like Hannity, DeSantis guest-hosted the Fox panel show Outnumbered three times in late 2017 and early 2018. 

Those appearances helped DeSantis’ campaign to victory in three ways.

First, it kept him in front of primary viewers talking about an issue they cared deeply about: defending then-President Donald Trump. DeSantis was one of the Republican congressmen who regularly appeared on the network to bolster what at time was the network’s obsession -- that sinister “deep state” operatives were using allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 election to persecute the president. When Florida Republicans tuned in to their favorite Fox programs, they could see the congressman standing up for Trump alongside the hosts.

“It’s impossible to overstate the value of a steady stream of Fox appearances among Florida Republicans,” Caputo wrote. “Seventy percent of likely Florida GOP voters regularly watch Fox News and Fox Business channels, according to the DeSantis campaign’s polling.”

Second, DeSantis’ Fox interviews garnered him the support of the Fox-obsessed president of the United States. 

Trump announced his support of DeSantis’ candidacy in late December 2017. According to Caputo, “DeSantis’ unwavering loyalty on Fox” was a significant factor in the move. In fact, Trump’s tweet backing DeSantis’ candidacy was spurred by watching a clip of the congressman appearing on the network. His enormous popularity among Florida Republicans made that endorsement, which he recapitulated near the end of the primary election, a seismic event in the race.

Third, DeSantis’ regular Fox appearances won him the support of Fox hosts with sizable megaphones and influence in the GOP, who helped him win over voters.  He touted his ties to the network’s stars on his campaign website, which mentioned in the first paragraph of his biography that he was endorsed by “Fox News’ Sean Hannity, and radio host Mark Levin” (who is also a Fox News host). 

Indeed, Hannity joined DeSantis and Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) on the campaign trail, making stops at Fort Myers, Tampa, and Pensacola on July 2, 2018. The Fox host described the pair during one appearance as “the ones fighting the hardest for the president,” adding, “I'm very thankful to both of you for what you do every day, which is why it's an honor to share the stage with both of you.”

DeSantis subsequently told the Fox host, “Every single poll we took on the campaign after Hannity came down, I was winning.”

With Fox, its stars, and its biggest fan behind him, DeSantis surged to an easy victory in the GOP primary. He thanked Hannity and Levin for their support during his primary night speech.

“DeSantis’ cultivation of his Fox relationship made all the difference,” Caputo concluded. “It powered him to a double-digit win over a once better-known and better-funded candidate whose nomination appeared inevitable months ago.”

DeSantis continued to enjoy the network’s support during his general election bout with his Democratic opponent, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum. 

Notably, after the Republican drew condemnation for an August 2018 Fox appearance during which he described Gillum, who is Black, as “articulate” and said voters should not “monkey this up” by electing him, Fox personalities rallied to his defense. While Fox anchor Sandra Smith said on air shortly after those remarks that Fox does “not condone this language,” her colleagues loudly sided with DeSantis that evening and the following morning.

In the end, DeSantis defeated Gillum by fewer than 35,000 votes in an election in which more than 8 million people cast ballots. 

In his first years as governor, DeSantis curbed the frequency of his Fox interviews. He made only 23 weekday Fox appearances from January 2019 through October 2020. 

But beginning in November 2020, as Trump stumbled to a reelection defeat, DeSantis has once again become a Fox fixture. He has totaled 29 weekday appearances over the last six and a half months. Nine of those interviews were with the hosts of Fox & Friends, while 18 of the sit-downs came in prime time.

For their part, Fox’s propagandists have been lavishing DeSantis with praise during those interviews, often pumping up the governor’s overrated response to the coronavirus pandemic.

“I'm an idiot. I should be in Florida. You should be my governor,” Hannity said while interviewing him last month. 

Levin touted DeSantis as an “enormously successful” governor and “exceptional statesman” who is “under attack” because he has “demonstrated in reality capitalism works, that science when applied properly works, that individual liberty works, that citizens' self-responsibility works.” 

To Tucker Carlson, he is “the bravest governor, may be the only brave governor left in the United States.” 

“Create an office space for Fox News. We’re coming down,” Ainsley Earhardt said at the conclusion of one Fox & Friends interview.

DeSantis appears to be testing the waters to run for president -- and doing so using the same Fox strategy that got him this far. For a primary that promises to be fought on the network, he’s in a strong position.