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Foster Friess

Businessman Foster Friess, pictured here last October, said Friday he plans to run for governor in Wyoming this fall.

Happy Monday! Last week was the three-day Wyoming Republican Party Convention, and apparently the concept of media coverage was foreign to some of the attendees. By press time on this newsletter, I had been asked whether I was a secretary taking minutes on the proceedings and, after interviewing Foster Friess in the hallway, whether I was training to be a journalist. Sure to both.

Friess announcement catches convention by surprise

I have to write this before the convention is truly over, but my guess is that the oddest moment of the convention will go down as the Friday afternoon luncheon with Foster Friess. Apparently Friess, the Jackson-based GOP megadonor, had offered to sponsor the meal months ago. Friess was flirting with a Senate run against John Barrasso at the time, but I most in the state Republican establishment didn’t find the odds of a such a run very likely. In any case, he sponsored it as a donor -- not a candidate.

The night before the lunch, Friess’s team sent a press release to some members of the media, stating that he would be making a “big announcement” at the convention. Then just a few minutes before he took the stage at the lunch, Politico posted an article based on anonymous sources saying that Friess was planning to run for governor.

But because it was a candidate-sponsored lunch, party chairman W. Frank Eathorne told Friess he actually shouldn’t make any “big announcement” at the lunch.

“I just found out five minutes ago that it’d be inappropriate,” Friess said. So began and odd exchange with audience members as news spread throughout the crowd that Friess was planning to enter a crowded Republican primary field.

Friess went through the classic, “if I were to run...” and entertained a question on what advice he would give to the “CEO” of Wyoming before awkwardly making a formal announcement in the hall outside the lunch room.

Friess is a genial guy and had several strong applause lines during his speech as well as a couple jokes that landed as well as any at stilted political events. He rocks a little bit of a cowboy persona in his personal branding, from the horses on his website and the cowboy hat he donned at the convention.

But his entry into the race provoked mostly baffled astonishment on the part of Wyoming politicos at the convention. Friess is known well in GOP fundraising circles around the country -- he gives generously and props up individual candidates he favors, like Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania -- but hasn’t been very active in Wyoming.

He balances a brand of Christian conservatism with the bomb throwing of Donald Trump -- at the convention, he joked about President Barack Obama’s “cousins” in an imaginary country -- and personal wealth that likely dwarfs Trump’s.

The narrative of a candidate like that trying to scoop up a governor’s seat in conservative Wyoming may play well in the national press, but the seriousness of Friess’s candidacy will likely pivot on whether he launches a Wyoming-style campaign.

Friess said he plans to launch a listening tour around the state, but has otherwise shown little appetite for the retail politics -- door knocking, working county contacts, etc. -- that typically undermine victorious candidates in the Cowboy State. He was nowhere to be seen at the convention on Saturday and did not submit his name early enough to be offered a speaking slot with the other six GOP candidates for governor.

So far, staffers for the other governor candidates are spinning -- arguing that as a businessman Friess will pull votes from Sam Galeotos, or that as a conservative Christian he’ll leach support from Harriet Hageman, or that as another wealthy white man he’ll in fact help Hageman stand out and so on.

It’s obviously too early to tell how Friess will impact the race, or what kind of campaign he will run, but the announcement clearly caught most off guard and has lit a fire under what was already expected to be a feisty race for the governor's mansion in Cheyenne.

Bebout pushes back

Some lawmakers are stepping down or not running for reelection this year, but Senate President Eli Bebout, R-Riverton, is not one of them. The confusion started with an article in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle that noted Bebout said he won’t be running for reelection -- in 2020. But for those who didn’t read the email, it may have looked like Bebout was done in 2018 and it apparently spurred the longtime lawmaker to respond.

In an email last week, Bebout outlined his accomplishments in the Senate.

“Quite frankly, I can’t wait to carry out the people’s work in the Wyoming Capitol Building’s restored Senate chamber during the 2020 Legislative Session,” Bebout said.

“To borrow from Mark Twain, reports of my retirement have been greatly exaggerated.”

Whether this is good news or bad news for those who misunderstood the original article is hard to say. Bebout took a hardline on education funding and other government spending, though it is not clear that whoever would take his place will be any more moderate on those matters.

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Gordon donations clarified

I wrote in a past newsletter about State Treasurer Mark Gordon’s past political donations, and after that article ran, a tipster got in touch to say that Gordon had not in fact donated to Sen. Mike Enzi in 1996 as his campaign had claimed.

I looked into it, and here’s what I can say:

It’s true that the Federal Election Commission doesn’t show a contribution from Gordon to Enzi that year. However, Gordon’s campaign provided a cancelled check that clearly shows a $1,000 contribution to Enzi’s Senate campaign, cashed at Hilltop National Bank.

Enzi’s office said they didn’t have a list of 1996 donors.

“Senator Enzi's campaign treasurer says that her records from 1996 are not readily available, but we can confirm that Mark Gordon donated to Enzi's campaign in 2008,” spokesman Max D’Onofrio said in an email.

(The discrepancy between FEC records and Gordon’s photocopy of the deposited check suggest something may have fallen between the cracks during Enzi’s busy first campaign.)

(Roundup will return.)

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Friess's campaign team did not send me the press release regarding his "big announcement." The email was held by the Star-Tribune's email system and was not released until a day after it was originally sent.

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Arno Rosenfeld covers state politics.

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