The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Vying for cable news attention may not yield the rewards senators think it does

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) arrives for the confirmation hearing for Supreme Court nominee Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson in Washington on March 22. (Win Mcnamee/Getty Images)

Sens. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) and Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) are veterans at the art of generating attention. It was Hawley and Cruz, you’ll remember, who bucked then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) insistences that no one in the Senate Republican caucus bolster Donald Trump’s efforts to undermine the results of the 2020 election. It was Hawley and Cruz who drew up plans to object to the counting of electoral votes on Jan. 6, 2021, to appeal to Trump’s base.

They did, in fact, get the attention they sought.

This week, a different opportunity has availed itself: the Senate Judiciary Committee’s consideration of President Biden’s nomination of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to sit on the Supreme Court. As members of that committee, both Hawley and Cruz have since taken the opportunity to turn the spotlight toward themselves.

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To be clear, this is a fundamental component of being a national politician; you don’t get elected to the Senate without having a healthy affection for attracting eyeballs. Of course, it is also the case that senators should probe and question Supreme Court nominees. But if you’ve been paying any attention at all to the Jackson nomination, you probably have heard something about Hawley’s and Cruz’s lines of argument and less about, say, Sens. Ben Sasse’s (R-Neb.) or John Cornyn’s (R-Tex.).

Hawley and Cruz have made sure of that. In the past two weeks, they have been mentioned in 124 15-second segments on Fox News or Fox Business, about three times as often as Cornyn and Sasse. That takes some trying.

It made me wonder how effective this is. We know that senators like Cruz, Hawley and Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) are adept at generating sound bites that play on Fox or are covered in conservative media, but what benefit does that yield? Does it, for example, lead to more people contributing to their campaigns?

To answer that question, I pulled data on television mentions (using GDELT analysis of Internet Archive closed-captioning data) and on campaign contributions in 2021 for 12 senators. Those senators were selected to contrast a media-hungry senator with a more demure one, with both coming from the same party, to better evaluate relative campaign contributions.

What emerged was not what I expected. The senators who love cable news were mentioned on TV nearly three times as often last year as those who aren’t constantly on TV — but the latter group raised more money. That pattern holds even when you look only at Fox News and Fox Business mentions and when you look only at individual donors — the sort of donors who might be expected to see someone on Fox and then make a contribution.

Of course, there’s an important distinction between these senators: not all of them are up for reelection this year. One would expect those on the ballot in November to be raising money more enthusiastically than those who aren’t up until 2026, for example.

When we overlay when the senators are facing reelection, the picture changes — though not as much as you might expect. Senators who are up for reelection this year did, in fact, pull in a lot more money. But in the pool of those not on the ballot in November, the difference between the cable-news mainstays and those who aren’t wasn’t as large as you might expect.

The senators who are mentioned on TV constantly were mentioned an average of about 700 more times in 2021 than those who aren’t on TV a lot. They also raised about $1.5 million more on average — meaning their cable-news mentions were each worth about $2,000. If it was a Fox News mention, the benefit was about $3,000 in individual contributions on average.

These are small numbers and subjective decisions, certainly. It’s also correlation without proven causation; did Sen. Bill Hagerty (R-Tenn.) pull in less money because he’s not on TV as much as Ted Cruz or because who’s heard of Bill Hagerty? (No offense to the good senator, of course.) Nor is this necessarily the metric that Cruz and Hawley are measuring. Each wants Fox News attention, not only because of money but because they have designs on higher office, and the road to the Republican presidential nomination runs through Fox’s studios.

And of course, because they like positioning themselves at the center of attention. If you’re curious, Cruz and Hawley were mentioned on CNN, MSNBC, Fox News and Fox Business in about 12,000 15-second segment’s last year, more than three times as often as the six less-attention-hungry senators included above combined.

They raised one-quarter as much money.