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friess wildcard

Foster Friess became something of a tease for Wyoming politicos starting last fall.Former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, freshly ousted from his White House post, was on the prowl for incumbent Republican senators who had failed to demonstrate adequate fealty to President Donald Trump. Wyoming’s U.S. Sen. John Barrasso, a member of the Senate’s leadership, fell into his crosshairs.

Bannon settled on two prospects to take on Barrasso: Erik Prince, founder of notorious private security contractor Blackwater, and Friess, a successful hedge fund manager based in Jackson. Both told national media outlets they were considering runs, but political observers here gave them terrible odds against Barrasso, who showed no signs vulnerability.

Barrasso is wildly popular by Congressional standards — his 61 percent approval rating is fifth-best in the nation — and Bannon’s Cowboy State rolodex didn’t seem very deep. Friess had little statewide presence in Wyoming. Prince lived in Virginia.

Still, both men could have poured some of their considerable wealth into what would no doubt have become a brutal GOP primary battle. But the speculation died down by winter. Prince became embroiled in the federal investigation into Russian interference during the 2016 presidential campaign. And Friess, whose status as a megadonor to national Republican causes has earned him a regular presence on cable news shows, mostly stopped discussing his possible Senate bid as well.

Yet Friess had one last trick up his sleeve. In late February, with all eyes on the Wyoming Legislature, Friess donated $10,000 to the Wyoming Republican Party and arranged to sponsor a lunch at the state convention two months later.

Wyoming Republican Party chairman W. Frank Eathorne said he spoke to Friess about the lunch in January and was led to believe that Friess would be speaking as a donor.

Then on the evening before the April 20 lunch, his assistant in Arizona, where Friess lives for part of the year, sent out a cryptic email to members of the media.

“Foster will be making an announcement regarding his involvement in the 2018 Republican primary at the convention,” the brief email read.

“The email was a clue,” Eathorne said. But he still didn’t know what was coming.

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GOP Fundraiser

Foster Friess, candidate for Wyoming governor, talks to fellow candidate Sam Galeotos during a Natrona County Republican Party fundraiser Wednesday evening at The Hangar in Bar Nunn. Friess unexpectedly announced his entrance to the race last month.

Moments before Friess took the stage at the University of Wyoming ballroom where the lunch was being held, Washington, D.C., news outlet Politico published an article stating that he was going to run, not for Senate, but for Wyoming governor.

“It is pretty unusual in any governor’s race to announce it in D.C. first,” said Liz Brimmer, a GOP consultant in Wyoming.

Not only did Friess not tip off local media, in the end he also didn’t announce his governor run to the room of assembled convention delegates.

“I just found out five minutes ago that it’d be inappropriate for me to make any announcement, because other candidates didn’t have the opportunity to sponsor the lunch,” Friess said. “I’m sorry I have to be a little bit vague right now.”

Friess had initially told Eathorne he wanted to talk about his philanthropic work for Rachel’s Challenge, an organization that seeks to prevent school shootings, and promote his message of increasing civility in politics.

“My understanding was he was coming as a sponsor and a speaker on those topics,” Eathorne said. “His announcement came as a surprise.”

And, Eathorne said, to Friess’s credit, he agreed not to make any political announcements during the event.

Instead, Friess told jokes. One about how he had signed a contract as the “before” image for a fitness advertisement. That one he told twice. He told another about a blind horse that would only pull a stuck car if it heard other horses’s names called first.

“If he thought he was the only one pulling, he wouldn’t give a damn!” Friess said. That one got a big laugh.

Friess would later make headlines on some liberal websites and on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert for another comment he made that appeared to suggest President Barack Obama had sent millions of dollars meant for climate change mitigation to relatives in the fictional country of “Zoowanatou.”

(Friess subsequently clarified that he was referring to the island nation of Vanuatu and meant that the president of Vanuatu, not Obama, had sent the money to relatives.)

But the audience got antsy, many having read the Politico story. Friess told the crowd to just follow him outside the ballroom after lunch. Once the speech ended, Friess walked through the crowd with a coy grin and deflected questions, insisting that he needed to be outside the room before saying anything. Friess, towering over the crowd in his tassled leather coat, cowboy hat in hand, kept his word.

So it was that the wealthiest entrant into a GOP primary field, which already included six candidates, announced his intention to be the state’s next governor. That announcement came in a response to a question from a reporter, while surrounded by no more than a couple dozen hallway spectators.

He also took the opportunity to defend perhaps his most controversial comments to date, a statement he made about birth control during an appearance on MSNBC six years ago.

“For you who don’t know it ... Andrea Mitchell, she asked me some question about contraception,” Friess recalled. “I said, in my day the grandmothers told their teenage daughters to use as birth control an aspirin, to put it between their knees.”

Friess broke out in laughter.

“First of all, we have to help the left get a sense of humor,” he said. “I’m fully in favor of humor.”

Friess fielded questions for 20 minutes before an insistent aide finally pulled him away.

“He’s got to go do Cavuto on the East Coast,” the aide said, referring to Neil, the Fox News anchor.

“Cavuto!?” Friess replied jovially. “That guy bugs me all the time. Why doesn’t he leave me alone?”

Friess went to do his live hit. The convention went on without him.

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Mark Gordon

Wyoming Treasurer Mark Gordon speaks during a March event in Casper during the first stop of his campaign for governor. Foster Friess eschewed this traditional style of launching campaigns in favor of a brief announcement to a group of spectators outside an event at the Wyoming Republican Party Convention.

Friess’s entrance to the race came too late for a regular speaking slot the next day at the convention, when Republican candidates were awarded a few minutes to lay out a vision for the office they were seeking.

It also came too late, it seemed, for any of his opponents in the race for the seat being vacated by Gov. Matt Mead to reference him directly or even indirectly. Instead, campaign staffers dropped by the row of seats where a handful of reporters were dutifully covering convention floor debates and sought to put a positive spin on what Friess’s candidacy meant for their candidates.

As a conservative Christian, he would pull votes from Cheyenne attorney Harriet Hageman, who has built a base among rural voters. Or, as a rich man, he would help Hageman stand out from a field that appears to be led by State Treasurer Mark Gordon and Cheyenne businessman Sam Galeotos. Or, as another political outsider who made his hay in the private sector, he would hurt Galeotos and help Gordon. Or, as a generic conservative with relatively high name recognition, he would hurt Gordon’s advantage as the best-known candidate in the race.

But in a race that was already something of a toss-up, the only thing that people seemed to truly agree upon, once the spin was turned off, was that nobody knows what impact Friess will have.

“It’s so early,” said University of Wyoming political science professor Jim King. “The candidates really haven’t had a chance to shake out.”

Many members of Wyoming’s political class, most of whom are formally or informally backing one of the governors candidates, are reluctant to speak candidly about Friess on-the-record for fear of drawing the ire of a candidate with enough firepower to aggressively attack opponents.

Off-the-record, though, one question that comes up repeatedly is whether Friess is for real: Is the campaign a vanity project for a dilettante bored with pouring millions into political races without ever appearing on the ballot himself?

State Rep. Mike Gireau, a Jackson Democrat, said what he’s heard from Friess so far — in his convention speech, for example, Friess touched on support for Kurdish fighters in northern Iraq — didn’t seem connected to Wyoming, or the topics other candidates were addressing.

“He’s just like talking a different language,” Gireau said.

“Every other candidate, I could give you a reason why I think they’re running for governor,” he added. “But that’s the mystifying thing about this guy. Why? Is it just the prize? Is that it?”

Friess hasn’t done much to dissuade this line of thinking. Speaking to the press during his campaign announcement, he name dropped Republican governors that he was friendly with.

“Butch Otter and his wife — a governor friend — they do team roping together,” Friess said, referring to the Idaho governor. “It’s kind of cool.”

Then there was his absence at the convention that Saturday, when the campaign speeches are given, candidates work the crowd, set up booths to hand out merchandise and ensure they are visible to the die-hard party activists that make the trek to the biannual event.

Even without a speaking slot, other candidates, like Kristi Racines, who is running for state auditor, showed up to gladhand and make one-on-one pitches. Friess was nowhere to be seen.

Nor could Friess say whether he had an in-state political team lined up. He jokingly offered the position of campaign manager to a reporter who asked who was heading the effort.

Finally, Friess did not seem well-versed in Wyoming issues. He didn’t have an opinion on the Legislature’s solution to the state’s school funding crisis. He wasn’t sure whether Mead’s Endow economic diversification initiative was a good idea. He said he didn’t really keep up with statewide news because the Jackson Hole News&Guide, his hometown paper, was too liberal.

That all begged the question of whether Friess could win without engaging in the style of politics that Wyoming lore says is essential to winning statewide races — the long drives from small town to slightly smaller town, the appearances at bars and diners and parades, the walks down main streets and the knocks on doors, the dozens of local events that ensure candidates get face time with enough voters and hear about the minutiae that drives their political decisions.

Would Foster Friess, who is known well in Teton County and almost nowhere else in the state, show up in Lusk? In Meeteetse? Afton? Hulett?

And if not, would it matter?

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Wyoming campaigning

Mary Engebretsen, chairwoman of Gov. Matt Mead's re-election campaign in Converse County, hands out stickers to supporters during a tailgate before a University of Wyoming football game in 2010. Wyoming lore holds that this kind of in-person campaigning across the state is crucial to win.

Would the mythology that Wyoming voters need to get to know their candidates hold true, or could blanketing the state with slick advertising and pursuing a Trump-esque strategy of running as the unconventional but charismatic outsider, ready to disrupt Cheyenne, rally enough primary voters to Friess’s cause?

Brimmer, the consultant, said that Trump’s ability to easily carry Wyoming and maintain high approval ratings in the state did not suggest that the importance of maintaining a traditional style of politics — one that Trump bucked in his presidential campaign — had vanished from races for statewide office.

“It’s like comparing cherry blossoms and sugar beets — it’s just different,” Brimmer said of parallels between presidential and governor candidates in the Cowboy State. “The governor’s race in Wyoming is a much more familiar and intimate office to most Wyoming people.”

And, from a more tangible perspective, it seems unlikely that big spending alone will be enough to land a candidate in the governor’s mansion.

Bill Novotny, a longtime Republican operative in Wyoming, cited Gordon’s 2008 run for Wyoming’s U.S. House seat, during which he sank significant resources into well-produced television advertisements but was still handily defeated by Cynthia Lummis. Lummis, Novotny said, had a better ground game.

“If Foster has any hope of being a factor in this race, he’s got to put together a 23-county team,” Novotny said.

Good news for Friess’s odds, then, that he appears to be laying the foundation for a serious Wyoming campaign.

“I was pleasantly surprised, actually, to receive a phone call from Foster after the convention wanting to visit with me about counties and the issues we’re facing,” said Novotny, who is active in the Wyoming County Commissioners Association.

Friess also made an appearance in Bar Nunn last week for a Natrona County Republican Party fundraiser that was also attended by Barrasso, Gordon and Galeotos, along with a smattering of legislators and party bigwigs. On Friday, he announced a four-stop tour of Wyoming, through Cheyenne, Wheatland, Casper and Gillette.

Laramie County Republican Party chair Darin Smith, one of Friess’s most prominent supporters in the state, said that Friess had called him and other party officials across the state.

“I had a ton of advice for him,” said Smith, who said he had not formally joined Friess’s campaign. “I told him he started late and he had an uphill battle.”

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Foster Friess

Observers say Foster Friess's wealth will be an asset during his run for governor, but will need to be coupled with an earnest campaign effort if he hopes to win.

Friess, who was unavailable to be interviewed for this article, is often described as a billionaire, though he chafed at the description during the 2012 presidential race.

“My wife came to me and said, ‘Have you been holding out on me?’” Friess told the Washington Post at the time. “People asked, ‘So what are you — a multimillionaire?’ I like to say a billionaire wanna-be.”

Research firm Wealth-X pegged Friess’s fortune at $530 million that year, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Friess made his money as an investment manager and oversaw Friess Associates, which operates the Brandywine funds. He moved to Jackson in the early 1990s, according to Wyofile, an online news outlet.

The Jackson businessman has long been a major donor to national Republican candidates. Friess likes his candidates Christian and conservative, bankrolling Rick Santorum’s presidential bid in 2012. He has also dipped his toe into the culture wars, helping found conservative digital news website the Daily Caller and propping up Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, a Republican, during a recall bid launched after Walker sought to gut public sector unions in the state.

“Undoubtedly he’s going to reach out to the business community, to social conservatives, to national security voters,” Novotny said. “His number one obstacle in the race is proving that he’s Wyoming authentic.”

Smith, the Laramie County party chair, argued that not only is Friess authentic to Wyoming, but that he is unique among public figures in the state.

“People who have moved the dial in the state — in the nation — it’s a short list, like Gerry Spence, Dick Cheney, Al Simpson,” Smith said. “You’ve got to put Foster Friess in that group as well.”

Friess’s money will no doubt have an effect on what is already expected to be one of the most expensive races for governor in state history. Friess is the only candidate whose wealth is measured by national firms and publicized, but other top contenders also have enough personal funds to bankroll a pricey campaign.

“Money is hugely, hugely important in politics and we all know that (Foster) can blanket it,” said a longtime Republican leader in Wyoming, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “You can buy an election in this state. It’s really sad.”

But, the source added, even those hoping to buy a race cannot rely on dollars alone.

“You have to do enough so that people believe you are engaged and want the job and trying,” the source said. “You have to do both.”

Novotny agreed. He said that at least three candidates would be able to compete with one another in terms of sheer dollars spent, though that was unlikely to decide the race on its own.

“Foster and Mark Gordon and Sam Galeotos will probably have all the resources they need to get up on TV,” said Novotny, who is affiliated with Gordon’s campaign. “But at the end of the day, ads — whether they’re on the radio, internet, television or radio — can only get you so far.”

Novotny said that beyond spending big, it is important to cultivate a combination of paid staff and volunteers across the state who can help build grassroots support and keep candidates plugged into, for example, which local events are important to attend.

As for Friess’s viability in the race if he does the things that experts agree are necessary — travel the state, properly staff a campaign, convince voters he’s serious — his status as a Jackson Hole denizen, foreign to the political establishment in the state and with a penchant for eyebrow-raising comments, may not be disqualifying.

A staffer working for a different gubernatorial candidate acknowledged as much, warning that Friess’s presence in the race ought to be taken seriously.

“He says a lot of wild things, but he’s a self-made hundred-millionaire,” the staffer added. “People should not underestimate him.”

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