Foster Friess (pronounced “freeze”), the person and not the ice cream franchise, was not a household name before December 25, 2011. Then Rick Santorum shot up from 5 percent in the Iowa polls and eventually went on to win the caucuses. As a result, his longtime friend and major superPAC donor became a bit of a celebrity. But unlike a blasé Hollywood newcomer, Friess is plainly having the time of his life. I spoke to him by phone over the weekend.
He jokes that the left-wing blog Daily Kos dubbed him a “billionaire.” Friess jokes, “My wife came to me and said, ‘Have you been holding out on me?’ People asked, ‘So what are you — a multimillionaire?’ I like to say a billionaire wanna-be.” Most people would call him, “really rich.” His is a rags-to-riches story not unlike the father of Santorum’s chief rival, Mitt Romney. Friess is a first-generation college graduate. He later made his fortune in investment funds. The New York Times reported, “Like donors to rival super PACs, Mr. Friess ranks among the country’s leading patrons of Republican and conservative causes. He has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Republican Party and candidates in recent years, including to Mr. Santorum’s two chief rivals for the presidential nomination, Mr. Romney and Mr. Gingrich, to whom Mr. Friess donated last spring. Late last year, Mr. Friess gave $100,000 to Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin to help fend off a Democratic-led recall effort.”
In Santorum’s case, he’s given through the Red, White and Blue Fund super PAC, which started on a shoe-string and is now flush with cash. Friess says since Santorum’s unexpected success, donors have come out of the woodwork. “A guy from Phoenix called and said, ‘A lot of my pals are giving to Romney, but I want to help Rick.’” He jokes that with all the support Santorum is getting he could hand the baton over to other fundraisers. But it is evident he’s having far too much fun to do that.
Sixteen years ago, Friess heard Santorum deliver a speech. Part way through the remarks, Fries recounts, “I saw the authenticity of the guy.” Shortly thereafter Friess held a fundraiser. “He’s been bringing in 10 or 15 thousand, and I raised $85,000 in my home. That was a lot at that stage for him.” Friess says that once Santorum left office, the two became closer, playing golf and spending more time together.
Unlike many superPAC donors and ordinary big GOP donors, Friess hasn’t remained in the shadows. In fact, he introduced Santorum for his CPAC speech, an indication of how close the two are. He tells me, “I can’t remember who asked [me to speak]. I’ve often introduced him. I introduced him last year.” But Friess dismisses the notion he’s now scripted by the campaign. “They had no idea what I’d say,” he says.
Friess and Santorum continue to spend time together. At CPAC, Friess was one of only a few advisers with Santorum in the suite during my interview. And he was there from the start. He recalls he spent two days in Iowa with Santorum traveling around in a Dodge truck. “At one point we had to drive four hours to get someplace. “We joked, ‘Hey Mitt’s probably flying over us in a jet.’” But he witnessed firsthand the intensity of interest in Santorum’s campaign.
He’s seen Santorum over a long span of time, debated politics with him and observed him up close in family settings. Friess is candid, “He was known in the House as very courageous but prickly.” He points to the Gang of Seven effort that uncovered the banking scandal. “He took on much more senior colleagues.” But Friess insists there has been a maturation process.
For weeks pundits chattered about a “new” Newt Gingrich. But Friess implicitly suggests there is a new Rick. Since the days in the House, Santorum, he says, “has been able to migrate into more joyfulness, although he is still combative.” Outside observers haven’t always seen that, and in early debates Santorum was criticized for seeming too intense or even angry. But Friess says that beginning in the Senate, Santorum changed. “All of us grow,” Friess says. “He migrated to be more conservative.” Friess attributes that to the “aging of experience an the faith journey” Santorum became more religious during that time, Fries recalls, in large part as a result of his Bible study classes.
He resisted the notion that Santorum was a big-spender in Congress. “Everyone in Congress, except for maybe Ron Paul and [Sen. John] McCain, have [voted] for earmarks.” He likes to say, “Rick is in recovery” from earmarks.
In a campaign in which the base seems to be searching for perfection, Friess cautions, “You’re not going to agree with him on everything. Hey, if you were looking for a perfect match, you’d never get married.” He declines to say on what topics he and Santorum disagree, but he paints a portrait of a candidate stalwart in his views. Santorum’s critics label this as “stubborn” or “strident,”but Friess sees things differently. “You might not agree with him, but you admire his integrity.”
Santorum has the advantage, but also the burden, of lacking a cadre of advisers, speechwriters and consultants. Early on, Santorum had no money for these hangers-on; now he seems to delight in talking about whatever he wants to and sticking to his convictions. Friess argues that this is “why Rick resonates.” As time goes on, however, Santorum may be hurt by some constructive advice. In New Hampshire for example, he engaged in wide-ranging town hall discussions with voters (arguing about gay rights, for example) which may have taken him off his populist economic message and contributed to his fourth place finish.
Santorum is not the sort of candidate who gathers policy advisers around to brainstorm or who goes through multiple speech drafts. He is the policy director and the speechwriter for the campaign. Friess says, “In Missouri we were all standing in the hall. Rick had two pages of notes. We were chatting; he was scribbling.” A few minutes later Santorum took to the stage to give his victory speech. Friess says Santorum “has the ability to think through things and not get distracted.” That focus has come in handy, but as the campaign grows larger, and certainly in the White House, Santorum would find it impossible to be a one-man band. (The Romney team characterizes Santorum as lacking executive experience and the sort of managerial authority needed to be an effective president.)
Friess has certainly become a believer in the Santorum message. He explains the theme of the CPAC speech: “Do you want to be ruled by rules and regulations or guided by principles and virtues.” The contrast between a “top-down” and a “bottom-up” society is a common message in Santorum’s speeches.
Friess is also more candid than a candidate. He says when he talked about wealthy people “self-taxing” he got some flak. But he says, “Even Romney, when you look at what he contributes [combined taxes and charity], gives about 40 percent of his income. What if I want to provide day care? I can spend my money or the government can tax me and then provide [the day care].” He says it is a matter of “how you want to help people.”
Friess finds it “stunning” that he is now in the limelight. He says he knows “people at my country club” and in Wyoming and Delaware (where he began his career), but he’s never been a public figure.
He recalls that he ran into trouble with a Reuters report that recounted:
Friess had no hesitation in bringing the Mormon Church, of which the Republican front-runner Mitt Romney is a member, into an attack on abuse of welfare benefits, suggesting, without explanation, that “little Mormon gals” were getting pregnant with rich men and taking welfare to pay for their babies.
He seemed to be saying this was as much a factor in the breakdown of society than a spin-off of Mormonism: “It’s not just because they are in the Mormon Church. It’s what has happened in America where typically Mormons would never ever take welfare — ever.”
Other candidates and their backers have generally avoided overt attacks on Mormonism, aware of the risk of trespassing on the widely respected right to freedom of religious belief.
Friess insists his statements weren’t anti-Mormon. But certainly, that was a lesson in the rough and tumble of presidential politics. Aside from that incident, however, he confesses that the press has been “so polite and kind.” Well, that may change if, as he hopes, Santorum gets the nomination.
For now, however, there is a “Gee, can you believe it?” quality to both Friess and the man whose campaign he’s generously funded. The left may not find it so endearing, but only in America could a “billionaire wanna-be” and a long-shot candidate, who is often mocked for his faith, team up to compete for the presidency. They may not win, but they are certainly enjoying the ride.