In early January, Florida Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz appeared on the Fox News show “Outnumbered,” where four female panelists discuss news headlines on a long couch, with one male panelist seated in the center.
Gaetz, who was the #OneLuckyGuy — as the show calls the man in the middle — appeared thrilled to be there. “I’ve done almost every show in your network, but this couch has been my white whale,” he said, grinning.
That was one of at least 17 appearances Gaetz made on the Fox Corp.-owned channels this year, according to a Florida Phoenix review. Those include 10 appearances on Fox Business Network and another seven on Fox News. He’s already appeared on Fox shows at least six times in the first two weeks of February, sometimes appearing on multiple different shows on the same day.
The 36-year old congressman, whose 1st District covers the state’s western Panhandle, appears made for TV. He speaks in provocative sound bites as he lavishes praise on President Donald Trump and his policies and blasts his Democratic colleagues.
He wears his coiffed dark hair slicked back, dons brightly-colored suits and flashes a toothy smile as he cracks jokes about the political turmoil in Washington.
“I gotta bring some style to the Congress,” he quipped on “Outnumbered” when one of the hosts admired his cobalt-blue suit.
Gaetz, entering his sophomore term in the U.S. House, has been compared to the headline-grabbing freshman Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) for his skillful use of the media to make a brand for himself. He seems to relish that comparison.
“I aspire to be the conservative AOC,” Gaetz told Politico last month. The problem: “I can’t dance for shit,” he added, referring to a viral video of Ocasio-Cortez dancing during college.
Last week, Gaetz went on Fox Business’ show, “Kennedy,” to assail Ocasio-Cortez’s climate change plan, known as the Green New Deal. The host, Lisa Kennedy Montgomery, introduced him as the “conservative male” Ocasio-Cortez.
He laughed. “Thanks, though I’m not quite sure I can live up to that moniker, I will say that the green dream sounds more like a green nightmare to me, when none of us are able to turn on the heat or turn on the air conditioning, when we can’t fly, drive, get on trains, I guess we’ll all have to just move around to get on our winged unicorns to get from point A to point B.”
Fox ‘asks the most’
So why all the cable news appearances?
Gaetz’s spokeswoman, Jillian Lane Wyant, said the congressman’s media strategy “speaks for itself – ubiquity.
“Being on Television is more effective than a press release, though our office engages in both traditional and new media,” she added.
Gaetz has appeared on other television networks in the past two months, according to clips posted to his YouTube channel. He was on CNN and Bloomberg in February, and he was preparing to appear on MSNBC before the cable news network canceled, according to Lane Wyant.
Asked about the frequency of his Fox appearances, she said, “Fox seems to have a preference for Congressman Gaetz. While the congressman regularly appears on a variety of platforms, Fox News asks the most.”
Gaetz is active on Twitter, too, where he’s gotten more than 200,000 followers. By contrast, Ocasio-Cortez has more than 3 million.
Makeup tips from DeSantis
Political strategists say Gaetz’s TV strategy is a savvy one.
“He’s making a name for himself with the Republican base, particularly with the president of the United States,” said Ben Pollara, a Florida Democratic strategist.
Gaetz most often uses his air time to make a “full-throated defense of whatever lunacy Donald Trump’s got going on that particular day,” Pollara added, bolstering Gaetz’s political capital with the White House. More than any other member of Florida’s congressional delegation, “he’s got the ear of the president.”
Gaetz isn’t the only member of Congress who’s been on a cable TV blitz lately. For example, Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the new chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, has posted 17 television hits on his YouTube channel from this year. Those include eight MSNBC appearances and four at CNN.
A survey released last year by Poynter showed that Republicans are more likely than Democrats to trust Fox News. Democrats are more likely than Republicans to trust CNN, the poll showed.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a former Republican congressman and a friend of Gaetz, was similarly a frequent guest on Fox News and Fox Business. Politico reported in August that DeSantis spent so much time broadcasting Fox News TV hits from Washington, D.C. that he learned to apply his own makeup.
Gaetz and DeSantis appeared on Fox News together several times in 2018. “I used to make fun of Ron for putting on makeup. And now I had to go to him for tips to put it on and hide the circles under my eyes,” Gaetz told Politico.
DeSantis’s campaign polling showed that 70 percent of likely Florida GOP voters regularly watch Fox News and Fox Business channels, Politico reported.
“The people that [Gaetz is] appealing to are watching Fox,” said John McKager “Mac” Stipanovich, a Florida Republican strategist. “They’re only going to the local station for the weather” and maybe some local football coverage, he added.
Stipanovich said he thinks Gaetz “loves the national attention on Fox.” However, “I guarantee you he would do an hour-long interview with the number one television station in Zimbabwe. He likes the spotlight, he thrives on the controversy.” He labeled the Republican congressman a “calculated controversialist.”
Gaetz is “not afraid to be hated, so he provokes people, he pokes at them all the time,” Stipanovich said. “It has worked very well for him.”
A safe seat
Last week, Gaetz provoked outrage during a congressional hearing when he called for the removal of two fathers whose children were killed in the mass shooting last year at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.
But even backlash to some of his most controversial comments and opinions likely won’t hurt him back home, a solidly conservative district where “they have drawings for AR-15 [rifles] at political events,” said Stipanovich.
The district went for Trump in 2016 by a margin of 39.3 points, even though Trump only won Florida by 1.2 points.
The frequent air time could help boost Gaetz if he ever decides to seek higher office in state or national politics.
But, Pollara said, “There’s not any obvious opportunities for him at the moment in Florida,” with a new Republican governor and two Republican senators. “Barring a surprise Marco Rubio retirement,” Gaetz might not have many statewide options for a while.
“He could probably be re-elected indefinitely in that congressional seat,” Stipanovich said. He might also end up as a commentator on Fox, or might conceivably run for higher office.
“He doesn’t have to decide. All he has to do is wake up each day and be Matt Gaetz.”