TALLAHASSEE — Florida Republican primary voters are largely unfamiliar with Rep. Ron DeSantis. Fox News is helping to change that.
The little-known GOP congressman — a vigorous defender of President Donald Trump — is building a campaign around the president’s endorsement and a seemingly endless series of appearances on the conservative news network, an approach that has taken him from an asterisk in the polls to a top contender for the governorship in the nation’s largest swing state.
Since announcing his bid in January, DeSantis has been given frequent access to Fox’s best real estate — including Fox & Friends, Laura Ingraham, and the Hannity show — or been prominently mentioned across the network roughly 100 times, according to TV Eyes, a television monitoring service.
The service estimates those appearances equate to $7.1 million in what it calls “national publicity value” — a number that’s likely smaller since the value only applies to Florida-specific exposure, but still represents a significant chunk of change.
“That’s a lot of exposure,” said Rick Wilson, a veteran GOP ad maker. “Fox News has become a silo of the Fox/Trump media ecosystem, and DeSantis is on the list as one of their favorites.”
A Florida native and former Navy lawyer, the 39-year-old DeSantis graduated from Yale and Harvard Law School. He rode into Congress in 2013 and this year gained prominence among conservatives and the White House with his attacks on Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian ties to the Trump campaign.
DeSantis’ biggest campaign achievement to date is snagging Trump’s Twitter endorsement. Now, the same Fox News hosts who are among Trump’s biggest media cheerleaders regularly feature the three-term congressman, giving his gubernatorial campaign free advertising to boost his name recognition before the August 29 GOP primary.
“I can’t more enthusiastically endorse and completely support your run,” Sean Hannity, the network’s leading Trump ally, told DeSantis in a January interview weeks after he announced his campaign.
“There is no Fox show a Republican candidate would rather be on than Hannity, because that relationship not only gives you TV, but radio too,” said Brian Burgess, a GOP communications consultant who served as Gov. Rick Scott’s first communications director.
The Fox hits have been an adrenaline shot to DeSantis’ campaign, which is being beaten badly in the money chase by Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, the GOP frontrunner who has raised more than $20 million. DeSantis has raised $7.8 million between his campaign and political committee.
Putnam doesn’t have ready access to Fox. A former congressman himself who’s been shut out from Fox News show appearances in 2018 , Putnam has been forced to cede DeSantis exclusive access to the influential GOP media channel watched religiously by some of Florida’s most reliable GOP primary voters.
Florida, a closed primary state, is home to more than 4.5 million Republican voters.
A Fox News spokeswoman did not return a request seeking comment on why DeSantis is a regular guest or why Putnam has not been on the network this year.
Amanda Bevis, a Putnam spokeswoman, said Putnam has spent “his time traveling the Sunshine State meeting with as many voters as possible.”
Traditional political advertisements still matter a great deal in Florida. Any viable statewide candidate — in a state with 10 major media markets — eventually needs a big checkbook to spend on TV ads. But for those campaigns too broke to buy, exclusive access to Fox News is no small consolation prize.
Underscoring the influence of Fox News in a GOP primary, despite being overlooked as a guest, Putnam’s campaign has spent a sizable part of his war chest on the popular national cable network. Of the nearly $4 million spent by Putnam and his political committee on TV ads, hundreds-of-thousands of dollars have been for time on Fox News programs, according to Federal Communications Commission filings.
In addition, the National Liberty Federation, a dark money group with ties to U.S. Sugar, one of Florida biggest special interest groups, has spent more than $1.5 million on anti-DeSantis ads, almost all of which appear on Fox News. DeSantis has voted against U.S. Sugar subsidies in Congress.
When those ads started to circulate, some of Fox News’ most prominent hosts gave DeSantis cover and tried to tie the ads to Putnam.
“Is that Adam Putnam’s” television ad? asked Ingraham during an April DeSantis interview after listening to a portion of an ad that questioned his ties to Trump.
“I think it’s his supporters, the Florida Swamp,” DeSantis responded before Ingraham reminded viewers of DeSantis’ Trump support.
“You have been one of the most stalwart supporters of this president,” she continued. “Which is why months ago I endorsed you.”
If there’s a downside to DeSantis’ frequent appearances and kid-glove treatment on Fox News, it’s that they have offered fuel to rivals who are trying to paint the congressman as a Washington creature naïve to Florida-specific policies.
“Some have a passion for state issues, some have a passion for federal issues,” Putnam, a five-term congressman, said during a Saturday candidate forum hosted by the Florida Family Policy Council.
He did not call out DeSantis by name in the room full of social conservative activists, but the message was clear.
The out-of-touch-with-Florida theme is exacerbated by the fact that Putnam is the favorite among traditional Florida donors, while DeSantis’ early money is coming from wealthy out-of-state conservative donors who have helped fund his congressional races. Including affiliated political committee, roughly 40 percent of DeSantis’ contributions have come from non-Florida donors.
DeSantis’ campaign has also been reluctant to answer state-specific policy questions. When approached at an event in Miami last week by reporters, DeSantis addressed some state policy issues, but it’s been rare for him to do so.
DeSantis pushes back on the notion that he is a Fox News candidate, despite the large number of appearances on the network since getting into the race. He says he’s still a member of Congress, and that he has a need to address federal issues, while hitting Putnam, the state’s elected agriculture commissioner, for what he thinks is constant campaigning.
“I have a job up there [Washington]. I’m earning my paycheck,” he said, noticeably annoyed by a question implying he was waging a statewide campaign on national TV. “There are some people who are getting a six-figure check from the state of Florida, who basically uses that to campaign.”
Burgess, the GOP media consultant, said that’s not necessarily a bad thing if DeSantis’ most defining campaign moments remain directly linked to a national cable network.
“There is no place a Republican candidate would rather be during a primary than Fox News,” he said.