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Democratic hopefuls wrestle with whether to do Fox News town halls

Sanders and Buttigieg found friendly audiences. Warren and Harris are staying away. Gillibrand has one coming up.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) arrives for a Fox

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) arrives for a Fox News town hall event in Bethlehem, Pa., on April 15. Photo Credit: AP / Matt Rourke

During a town hall last month for Sen. Bernie Sanders, hands and cheers went up when audience members were asked if they’d be willing to transition to the government-run health care system he proposes.

During a similar forum last week for Mayor Pete Buttigieg, applause erupted when he was asked how he’d handle attacks by President Donald Trump and responded, “The tweets are — I don’t care.”

The Democratic presidential contenders found friendly audiences and created viral moments in an unlikely venue: Fox News Channel.

The Republican president has embraced the network as his turf and was quick to post a disgruntled tweet about Fox hosting Democrats who are potential rivals for the White House.

“Fox is moving more and more to the losing (wrong) side in covering the Dems,” Trump said May 19, the day of Buttigieg’s town hall. “… They forgot the people who got them there.”

Whether to appear on Fox News has shaped up to be the latest litmus test for Democrats seeking to set themselves apart in a packed presidential primary.

The political risk of venturing onto perceived enemy territory has paid off in ratings and exposure for Sanders (I-Vt.); Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana; and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), who appeared at a Fox News town hall earlier this month.

Sanders drew almost 2.6 million viewers for his April 15 Fox News event, making it the most-watched town hall so far in the 2020 election cycle. Both he and Buttigieg got in criticisms of the network while introducing their platforms to its viewers. Klobuchar with her town hall touted her bipartisan record and pragmatist credentials.

Presidential candidates Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) have attracted attention in their own right for rebuffing the right-leaning network.

The Democratic National Committee has indicated it sees Fox News as hostile. It chose to partner with CNN and NBC News to host the primary debates in June and July. DNC chair Tom Perez cited the “inappropriate relationship” between Trump, his administration and Fox News, which Perez said is “not in a position to host a fair and neutral debate for our candidates.”

But Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) has a Fox News forum scheduled for June 2, and other Democratic White House hopefuls are clamoring for their own.

Warren last month called Fox News a “hate-for-profit racket that gives a megaphone to racists and conspiracists” in a fundraising email and tweets explaining why she rejected an invitation.

“If you’re not using your town hall, I will,” former Rep. John Delaney (D-Md.) tweeted in response. “Democratic candidates have to campaign everywhere and talk to all voters.”

Gillibrand voiced the same sentiment to SiriusXM last week, saying, “I want to meet voters where they are, and I want to talk to all voters.”

Political experts said each candidate is hewing to their brand in the Fox News debate. But they also said they saw little downside for Democrats to take to the network if they can secure an invitation, because in a field this crowded, the more exposure, the better.

“The conventional take is that it seems counterintuitive because you’re not going to persuade anyone; the majority of Fox News’ audience is ardent conservatives and Republicans, so why do it?” said Reece Peck, a CUNY College of Staten Island professor and author of “Fox Populism.” “But it’s not that you’re necessarily converting the predominantly conservative audience, it’s that you attract attention from other outlets.”

He said there’s the added benefit of the “gladiatorial person in the arena” optics.

“It allows you to have a chance to have a moment,” Republican consultant Susan Del Percio said. “It allows you to break through in a way that, frankly a lot of people are hoping to do on the debate stage.”

The campaigns of Sanders, Klobuchar and Buttigieg did not respond to questions on whether fundraising spiked during and after their Fox News town halls, but Google Trends showed that interest in the candidates and searches for their names did.

Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas and Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) are among the Democratic candidates who have said they would be willing to conduct town halls on Fox News.

The network has not publicly disclosed which campaigns it is in talks with.

Democratic strategist Monica Klein said doing a June 2 forum makes sense for Gillibrand, who has met the polling threshold toward qualifying for the June 26 and 27 debates but would firm up her chances by also meeting the fundraising threshold.

“For Gillibrand, who’s still struggling to get 65,000 donors and get on the debate stage,” Klein said, “any exposure is good exposure.”

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