The conservative media kingmakers’ preferred candidate to knock off Donald Trump is not meeting expectations, and the family’s patriarch is getting tired of waiting.
LESS THAN TWO months into Ron DeSantis’ declared run for president, his most important backers in conservative media are already starting to lose faith.
Since the beginning of the Biden presidency, the powerful Murdoch family has favored the Florida governor in the 2024 presidential primary, largely due to a conviction that DeSantis would be a more electable, and less chaotic, evolution from Donald Trump. But in recent weeks, the Murdochs have grown increasingly displeased with the DeSantis campaign’s perceived stumbles, lackluster polling, and inability to swiftly dethrone Trump, multiple sources tell Rolling Stone. They have also seriously questioned whether the governor is capable of defeating Trump in the 2024 GOP presidential primary.
Billionaire media mogul Rupert Murdoch in particular has been voicing his doubts and frustrations, in private discussions and calls, at times wondering if a DeSantis “comeback” is possible at this point. Murdoch is the longtime patriarch of the family that controls Fox News, the New York Post, The Wall Street Journal and other media properties that are highly influential among conservatives.
“[Rupert’s] understandable worry is that we may end up being stuck with Trump anyway,” a senior Fox source tells Rolling Stone. “And DeSantis is underperforming. Anybody can see that…[and the Murdochs], they’re seeing it, too.”
This reporting is based on conversations with two people who speak to the Murdochs, three well-placed sources at Fox, and three others briefed on the situation. The sources spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to divulge the contents of private discussions. Rupert Murdoch did not respond to messages seeking comment on this story. A spokesperson for the DeSantis campaign did not immediately respond to a comment request. A Fox representative declined to comment on Tuesday.
According to two of the sources, Murdoch has privately winced at DeSantis’ nonstop cultural-grievance strategy, arguing that it is being executed sloppily. In his repeated attempts to outflank the already hard-right Trump on the right, DeSantis and his team have waged an aggressive messaging operation to paint the Florida governor as a much more extreme culture-warrior as compared to the former president — most recently via a bizarre, bigoted video lauding the governor for his anti-LGBTQ attacks. This strategy has for months attracted criticism from fellow Republicans for being unsavvy and “too online” to connect with the median voter.
“They are transactional and can smell a loser a mile away,” one Fox insider bluntly assesses, referring to Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch, and top Fox News executives.
Rupert Murdoch’s complaints lately have, three of the sources recount, centered on how he feels DeSantis often seems too awkward in his public presentation and in his attempts to connect with the American voter. Murdoch has also noted DeSantis 2024’s recent failures to chip away at Trump’s stubborn dominance in the polls, despite the pre-campaign-launch hype about how things would significantly change right after DeSantis’ declaration. After months of high-quality polling, the twice-indicted former president continues to consistently hold gaping leads on DeSantis, his top 2024 Republican rival.
Hints of the Murdoch clan’s displeasure with DeSantis have surfaced in News Corp’s media properties over the past few weeks. Two sources familiar with the matter stress that this is “not by accident” and “not a coincidence.”
It’s also a marked shift for the Murdoch clan. Until recently, Fox News had been extremely friendly and safe territory for the Florida governor with softball questions about his culture-war crusades and other matters. Since 2021, the network has been vital in building DeSantis’ national name-ID among conservatives, heralding him as a fast-rising political star and touting him as the future of the Trumpified right.
In an interview last week, Fox News host Will Cain praised DeSantis’s record as Florida governor but wondered “when that job, if ever, begins to resonate in the numbers for you for president.” DeSantis’s campaign, Cain said, is “not yet is connecting” with voters as Trump continues to enjoy a commanding lead in polls.
On Sunday, host and Trump ally Maria Bartiromo bluntly asked DeSantis on-air, “What’s going on with your campaign?” as the “optimism” about it has faded with his polling numbers as a chyron advised viewers: “DeSantis Trails Trump by 34% for GOP Nomination.”
The editorial pages of News Corp’s newspapers — often important tea leaves for divining the Murdoch family’s political wishes and priorities — also appear to have taken recent jabs at DeSantis. The right-wing Wall Street Journal editorial board took aim at Florida’s new restrictionist anti-immigration bill, a key pillar in DeSantis’s attempts to get to the right of the former president. The bill, the board concluded, will “exacerbate the state’s labor shortage while doing nothing to fix Biden’s border failures.”
The New York Post editorial board, which once hailed DeSantis as the candidate who “gives America the chance to move on from its punch-drunk stupor,” has begun to look askance at DeSantis. In its recent roundups of noteworthy commentary from other publications, the board has curated pieces expressing skepticism at “DeSantis’ Odd Choices” to criticize Trump’s Supreme Court picks and to be “too online” in his constant culture-war crusading.
In recent years, much has been made — including by Trump — of the Murdochs’ perceived desire to move on from the former president, if not Trumpism per se. When DeSantis dominated the race in Florida during an otherwise historically bleak outcome for the GOP in the 2022 midterms, Murdoch-controlled properties immediately began trying to bury Trump, who many Republicans blamed for the party’s disastrous electoral showing. The contrast was enough for the New York Post to put the Florida governor on their cover and labeling him “DeFuture.”
However, even at the lowest points in the Trump-Fox relationship, the ex-president continued to enjoy a glut of support from an array of high-profile on-air talent and hosts at Fox News and its sister channel Fox Business. This includes primetime stars like Sean Hannity, who has been moonlighting for years as one of Trump’s key political advisers.
Another source with ties to Fox execs, Trump, and the DeSantis camp adds that Fox and the Murdochs “are in a corner. They’ve clearly gone all-in for DeSantis and now he’s not resonating. And now they have a new [primetime] lineup launching so they will be under a microscope.”
But at this point in the Republican primary, the Murdochs aren’t ready to throw DeSantis overboard just yet, the sources say — in part because they likely would have nowhere else to turn except to crawl back to Trump. In the meantime, the media mogul and his lieutenants can keep pressuring Team DeSantis for a course correction that Murdoch is starting to suspect may never materialize.
“Ron DeSantis was built up as the Trump-slayer. So if he’s not immediately leading Trump in the polls, it’s easy to see how that can easily be spun as a let-down,” says Doug Heye, a former communications director at the Republican National Committee. “There are a lot of people who are trying to write the obituary of a well-funded and popular figure in the party before the debates have even started. Ron was the designated dragon-slayer — and because he hasn’t slayed the dragon before the debates have begun, he’s being portrayed as a failure. And I think it’s too early for that.”
However, Heye adds, “whether you’re the Murdochs or anybody else, if you’re worried about Trump being the nominee, there’s ample reason to be so, because of his dominance in the polls now. I don’t think that Trump is inevitable, but I am certainly worried he’s going to be the nominee [again].”