Wyoming politicians and pundits say if Foster Friess enters the U.S. Senate race, he’ll have to convince voters he will work for the state, not just for a national conservative agenda.
In an email to Robert Costa at the Washington Post about his intentions, the Jackson-based millionaire investor, philanthropist, and political donor said he would “prayerfully” consider challenging U.S. Sen. John Barrasso. Others requested his candidacy, Friess wrote to Costa. The newspaper reported that the Wisconsin native had met recently with former Trump strategist Steve Bannon.
Those statements left some in the Equality State wondering if Friess, who moved to Teton County about 25 years ago, has a firm grasp of Wyoming grassroots politics. (Friess did not respond to a request for an interview or answer email questions.) A born-again Christian and deep conservative, he’s spent millions supporting out-of-state candidates, most notably Rick Santorum in his 2012 presidential bid, and Christian and humanitarian causes around the globe.
He’s been generous in Jackson Hole as well, where he famously doled out $7.7 million to charities nominated by his guests at a gala at the five-star Four Seasons Resort. But, many wonder whether he can hang with the folks at The Busy Bee in Buffalo, or Rose’s Lariat café in Rawlins.
Freudenthal: A Wyoming purpose a must
Wyoming voters may not cotton to Friess just because important outsiders called him to candidacy, former Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal said. Freudenthal, a Democrat who appointed Barrasso to the Senate after the 2007 death of Craig Thomas, said both Friess and Erik Prince — who is also considering a primary challenge — face the same obstacle.
“Neither of their impetuses is built around the proposition that something in Wyoming needs to be addressed,” Freudenthal said. Instead, the potential candidates mull the race “because important people outside of Wyoming” asked them to.
“This whole thing is offensive,” Freudenthal said. “I would hope if somebody wants to service Wyoming they would be motivated by what’s going on in Wyoming.”
Sen. Thomas’s former chief of staff, Liz Brimmer, questioned whether money alone could win the race. “Not sure there is a “buy now” tab for a Wyoming [U.S.] Senate seat,” she wrote in an email.
Wyoming voters seek more than a like-minded candidate, said Ruth Ann Petroff, a Republican who represented Teton County in the Wyoming House for 6 years until 2017. “Most people want someone looking out for our interests, not just specific ideological, political things,” she said.
That can be doubly tough for a candidate from Jackson Hole, the richest enclave in the state. “Whether or not someone from Teton County understands the needs of the rest of the state, it’s a matter of that person really proving it,” she said. “For the rest of the state, being from Teton County is a negative.”
Wyoming Sen. Leland Christensen wonders how well Friess is known outside his mountain valley home. Christensen wore out a lot of boot leather when he lost the U.S. House race to fellow Teton County resident Liz Cheney in 2016.
“I don’t know that his exposure has been on a statewide level,” Christensen said.
Freudenthal raised another issue. Barrasso, a Casper Orthopedic surgeon, is known across Wyoming. “He’s all over the state,” Freudenthal said. “Suddenly, we’re supposed to get rid of him?”
“Few people would question [Barrasso] cares about the state and has been dedicated to the state,” Petroff added. People have beloved figures they think have worked hard. To run against those people, I think, is an uphill challenge.”
Friess is a hard worker, Christensen said, and would have to dedicate himself. “If he’s going to decide to enter in this campaign, he’s got his work cut out for him.”
There’s an easier way to get to Washington than by campaigning across Wyoming’s 97,818 square miles for a plurality among the states 176,161 registered Republican voters, Brimmer said. “Respectfully, these billionaires would be better off to look online for a new private jet instead to get them to D.C.,” she wrote in an email. “It actually takes real work, hard work, thoughtful work and earnest connections to hard-working people across this special, wonderful, and big state.”
What does Foster Friess stand for?
Former Teton County Representative Pete Jorgensen, a Democrat, agreed with most of the above views and said Barrasso would be hard for Friess to beat one-on-one. He made another observation about Friess that, on the surface, would seem appealing to many voters. “You’ve got to admit he’s a generous guy,” Jorgensen said.
Could Friess’ philanthropy be anything but an asset? In at least one instance in Teton County, a gift politicizing a longstanding cultural institution was divisive. In 1997, Friess offered the Grand Teton Music Festival $40,000 to reject an almost-$11,000 federal arts grant. It underscored Friess disdain for government programs. The festival board accepted his offer, setting off a cultural firestorm of newspaper editorials, op-eds, at least one festival board resignation, and even coverage by the New York Times.
He’s made other waves. When stumping for Santorum, he stunned NBC’s Andrea Mitchell with an answer to her question about contraception. Back in the day, Friess said, birth control wasn’t that expensive – an aspirin pill would suffice, he said; “The gals put it between their knees and it wasn’t that costly.”
“Excuse me,” Mitchell said after an awkward pause, “I’m just trying to catch my breath from that, Mr. Friess, frankly.”
More recently, WyoFile obtained a Friess email-invitation purportedly sent last year when he hosted a fundraiser for Donald Trump Jr. in Jackson Hole.
“I have met Don Trump several times at debates and he is a really, really nice guy as is every family member I have met,” Friess’ invitation read. “These are great people. I really get excited when I contemplate what this family and all the impressive people with whom they are surrounding themselves could accomplish.”
Friess went on to list six potential accomplishments, listed here verbatim:
- Aggressive confrontation of the Global Jihadis
- Saving America’s amazing healthcare system from takeover by the federal government
- Ending sanctuary cities and bringing sanity to our immigration system so we can bring the people to our country who want to contribute
- Spurring the economy by bringing our 38.5% corporate tax rate more in line with the rest of the world….Russian 20%, China 25%, Euro region 24.5%
- Appointing Supreme Court justices who would protect the Little Sisters of the Poor from being forced to pass out abortion pills and would secure our right to preserve our right to protect our lives and the lives of our families
- Promoting school choice to rescue those students mired in failing schools
The invitation said the Oct. 3, 2016 event would be held at the Brandywine/Friess building in Jackson, a 11,600-square-foot, three story log office the county assessor values at $4.2 million. A person need not attend to donate, the invitation said. But a person had to donate to attend — at least $1,000 to the Trump cause.
“The most you can give to the Trump Victory Fund is $446,000,” the invitation said. “If that isn’t in your budget, we’re planning a $25,000 sit down with five or six other people to share ideas with Don, Jr.”
Friess has advocated — in Teton County — for other non-Wyoming politically and socially conservative candidates. In 2011, at Teton Pines, in front of processional lighting, video cameras, and a room full of potential donors, he stumped for Utah legislator Dan Liljenquist, who was seeking to unseat U.S. Sen Orrin Hatch in the Republican primary. Friess gave at least $5,000 to the cause, according to the Federal Elections Commission.
It appears Friess’ support for Wyoming politicians falls shy of the more than $2 million he gave to Santorum’s 2012 presidential bid. Since 1992, Friess has donated $42,992 to Wyoming candidates or parties – all of them Republican — according to the Center for Responsive Politics, that tracks political donations online at Opensecrets.org.
That website also lists more than $440,000 in donations from Friess nationwide to political action committees and campaigns — not counting gifts to Santorum through the Red White & Blue Fund.
On a ledger with such figures, one $4,600 donation may seem insignificant. The recipient of that 2008 gift is, however, noteworthy — John Barrasso.
A generous guy
Friess and the Lynn and Foster Friess Family Foundation have donated millions to charities that span the globe. Those include Water Missions International, a Christian nonprofit addressing water and sanitation problems in the third world. On Friess’ website, the investor also says he supports Chances for Children, a group focusing on orphanages and schooling for kids in Haiti. He and Lynn have backed Tulsa’s Good Samaritan Health Services, which grew out of two Christian organization and delivers healthcare to underserved communities.
Both Ends Burning, an international adoption campaign, also receives Friess support and promotion, as does In His Image. That medical campaign seeks “to evangelize, disciple, train and mobilize healthcare professionals so that they are empowered to impact their nation and the world for Christ by improving health and meeting the spiritual needs of the unreached.” Friess also supports The American Islamic Forum for Democracy, which his website says advocates for American Constitutional principles, “through the separation of mosque and state,”
Such support has earned Friess recognition, including the Muhammad Ali Humanitarian Award, in 1999 and the “Humanitarian of the Year,” recognition at the National Charity Awards Dinner in 2000. He received the “Benefactor of the Year,” Paul Weyrich Award in 2009, and the “Spirit of the Children Award,” in 2010, for supporting Childhelp.