Foster Friess, the Jackson Hole-based mutual-fund mogul and philanthropist, has lately taken to calling himself the “underdog billionaire.”
It’s a reference to the fact that his ability to influence elections doesn’t quite measure up to those who use 11 digits to track their net worth, rather than a mere 10.
Friess has made national headlines in recent weeks thanks to his contributions to a super PAC that supports Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum. Friess is the main benefactor of the Red White and Blue Fund, which spent $537,000 on ads to help the Pennsylvanian Republican win the Iowa caucuses. And Friess recently sent solicitations to 5,000 wealthy Republicans, promising to match any contributions they make to the Red White and Blue Fund up to $500,000.
Friess calls himself an underdog because he’s up against the likes of Sheldon Adelson, the casino magnate, whose personal wealth of $21.5 billion far exceeds Friess’s. Adelson has given $5 million to a super PAC supporting former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
Unlike traditional political action committees, super PACs aren’t limited in the amount of money that they can raise or spend to support a candidate. They were made possible by the Supreme Court’s January 2010 ruling in Citizens United. The only catch is that the super PACs must operate independently from the politician’s own campaign.
Santorum has the best shot at taking down President Barack Obama in the general election, Friess believes. Friess, a born-again Christian, says the Obama administration has made decisions — such as funneling taxpayer funds into failing solar company Solyndra — that have hurt the economy.
In an email interview with WyoFile, Friess says he has known Santorum since the mid-1990s. Santorum is the only Republican candidate who “understands the plight of the blue-collar worker,” Friess says.
He believes Mitt Romney, the Republican frontrunner, can’t knock off Obama because his “patrician” background won’t play well with working-class voters.
Santorum, whose grandfather was a coal miner, has vowed to cut corporate taxes on manufacturing companies to allow U.S. firms to become more competitive with their Chinese counterparts.
“His positions are not only completely consistent with mine, but are consistent with the 80 to 90 percent of the America people who want to have a more fiscally responsible government,” Friess says.
He adds: “I also like the fact that Santorum is 53 years old and he starts each day with 50 push-ups. It will be very hard for us to expect to win with the more mature candidates.”
Critics of super PACs say they give too much sway to conservative billionaires like Friess. “The goal of the top 1 percent is simple,” U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, a Democrat from Vermont, wrote recently in a letter soliciting support for a a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United. “They will spend as much as it takes to elect candidates who support a right-wing corporate agenda.”
Leslie Peterson, a Democrat who ran unsuccessfully for Wyoming governor in 2010, agrees with Sanders, calling political funding in the U.S. a “disaster.”
She believes the super PACs could become just as big an issue in Wyoming as they have in national elections. “The minerals industry in Wyoming has huge resources to put into electing ‘their people,’ and they may very well do so,” says Peterson, who is also from Jackson.
Peterson notes, however, that Friess is acting within the law, and she adds that he and his wife, Lynn, have been “amazingly philanthropic” in Teton County. The Friesses have given away millions of dollars in Wyoming, to small humanitarian charities in Jackson, the National Museum of Wildlife Art, and the University of Wyoming, among others.
“They do a lot of stuff that I hate, but I also have to say they do a great deal that is good,” Peterson says. “I can’t condemn the man for doing what he believes in. I’m doing the same thing — I just don’t have the same wherewithal.”
Friess says he finds the recent concern about rich people influencing elections to be “quite humorous.”
Friess, who has long accused the mainstream media of having a liberal bias, notes that plenty of billionaires are in fact Democrats — and they’ve also been known to make huge contributions to influence elections.
The billionaires George Soros and Peter Lewis spent millions in 2004 through a 527 organization — the general category that super PACs now fall into — in an unsuccessful bid to derail former president George W. Bush’s re-election.
“It seems like these super PACs are only a problem if they’re operated by Republicans,” Friess says.
Jim King, a political science professor at the University of Wyoming, says the rise of super PACs could make it easier for the oil, gas, and coal companies that fuel the state’s economy to support Republican candidates, who are typically regarded as friendlier to the industry.
“There’s certainly the potential for the super PACs to make it more difficult for Democrats, unless they can get somebody to come in on their side,” King says.
But he notes that money is only one part of equation — and often not the deciding factor — in who gets elected. One of the biggest spenders in Wyoming election history was Democrat Bob Schuster, a Jackson lawyer, who spent $1.3 million in an unsuccessful 1994 bid for the U.S. House of Representatives, far more than Barbara Cubin, his Republican opponent. Cubin edged past Schuster with 53 percent of the vote and held the position for the next 15 years.
“It’s very, very difficult to actually buy an election,” King says.
Santorum built some early momentum with his surprising win in the Iowa caucuses, but he placed third behind Gingrich and Romney in the South Carolina primary on Saturday. He has vowed to stay in the race despite the weak showing.
Friess says he’ll switch horses if Santorum doesn’t win the nomination, and provide financial support to the GOP nominee in the general election.
He jokes that he’s ready to spend “$1 trillion” to defeat President Obama.
“We need to return our nation back to one that’s run on ethics and honesty and forthrightness,” he says.
— Also check out this Foster Friess profile originally published by WyoFile on January 25, 2011, “Wyoming Philanthropist Foster Friess; Hates taxes, opens wallet wide to those in need.”
Ben Gose is a Lander journalist who writes frequently for The Chronicle of Philanthropy and The Chronicle of Higher Education, and contributes to programs on Wyoming Public Television. He also coaches the sprinters on the Lander Valley High School track team.
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(Banner photo by Gage Skidmore)