Just after 6 a.m. on Wednesday, Fox & Friends began its broadcast with what struck me as a bit of a belated admission. “We know there’s no red wave,” said co-host Brian Kilmeade, as a graphic depicting the deadlocked race to control the Senate came on screen. “We got it.” Took them long enough.
I spent election night mainly toggling between four different cable news networks’ coverage of the midterms. For viewers of CNN, MSNBC, and NewsNation, it became clear well before midnight that the predicted “red wave” was actually more of a red herring. Extrapolating from unexpectedly strong Democratic showings in certain bellwether House races—the Virginia 7th, where beleaguered Democrat Abigail Spanberger beat back her Republican challenger; the Rhode Island 2nd, where Democrat Seth Magaziner held off Republican Allan Fung, the generally beloved ex-mayor of Cranston—these networks realized that Republicans were underperforming expectations, and they communicated this new information swiftly.
Fox News, though, was reluctant to declare the obvious. As I dipped in and out of its coverage Tuesday night, it became clear that the network was keying in on isolated bits of good news for Republicans. Ron DeSantis’ trouncing of Democrat Charlie Crist in the Florida gubernatorial race elicited much mirth and good feelings from Fox’s hosts and panelists, even as less prominent Republican candidates in less visible races across the country failed to trounce anyone. As NewsNation’s Leland Vittert was directly asking ex-Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker about Republican underperformance, on Fox News Karl Rove was blithely predicting that Republicans were still on pace to take a 30-seat lead in the House. (As of right now, it’s unclear if they’ll even win control of the legislature.) Even well after midnight, when at least a few of Fox’s panelists were beginning to tacitly acknowledge the folly in the GOP’s “nominate angry weirdos” strategy, Rove was still staring at his phone—note to all cable news anchors and commentators: Please stop doing this while you’re on the air!—while arguing that the Republicans were still likely to take a 20-seat House lead.
Rove has been periodically overinflating Republicans’ electoral chances on Fox News for a decade now, so it’s no big surprise that he did it again on Tuesday night. And I suppose it’s no big surprise that Fox News was reluctant to acknowledge Republicans’ disappointing showing, especially given the price the network paid for doing the opposite two years ago. On election night 2020, you will remember, Fox News was the very first network—by, like, days—to correctly call Arizona for Joe Biden. This early call sabotaged Donald Trump’s plans to prematurely declare victory that night, thus making Trump very mad at Fox and causing many of his biggest fans to temporarily abandon the network for far-right rivals OANN and Newsmax. Fox News eventually recovered from this ratings hiccup, and it did so by doubling down on dumb bullshit while getting rid of reality-based commentators and analysts such as Chris Stirewalt, then the network’s political director, who helped make and defend the Arizona call in 2020.
On Tuesday night, Stirewalt was offering insightful and relevant election analysis on the upstart network NewsNation, while Fox’s coverage was being anchored by Martha MacCallum and Bret Baier—who in 2020, with the presidential election outcome still up in the air, according to a recent book by Peter Baker and Susan Glasser, asked Fox to retract its Arizona call, noting that “the Trump campaign was really pissed” and that the “situation is getting uncomfortable. Really uncomfortable. I keep having to defend this on air.” Last night, Fox News tried to stave off discomfort for as long as it possibly could.