The Wildcatter: Foster Friess surges in governor race

Suddenly, the Jackson businessman is within striking distance of the governor's mansion

Happy Monday! Welcome to The Wildcatter, a newsletter I’ve been fielding more questions about lately. They tend to be from sources and run along the lines of, “Hey Arno — why are you still asking me questions if you don’t work at the Star-Tribune anymore?” This is why 💁. It’s no substitute for regular newspaper coverage, but this summer has been a rough patch for political coverage in Wyoming. Both the Star-Tribune and the Wyoming Tribune Eagle have been without full-time political reporters for the last couple months. Other reporters have filled in at both newspapers and Andrew Graham at WyoFile has continued churning out strong articles. But I hope The Wildcatter has served a meaningful role during this busy period in Cowboy State politics. The Star-Tribune’s new state politics reporter, Nick Reynolds, started late last week, so make sure to keep an eye out for his work.

You can also check out a recent article about the governor’s race that I wrote for the Star-Tribune’s voter guide and another I wrote about the chance of a “blue wave” in Wyoming this year (hint: not that high!).

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Friess soars in recent polls

The Wyoming governor’s race remains sorely under-polled. Surveys are expensive and Wyoming is a hard state to poll, with a small and dispersed population. The Wyoming PBS poll used for its July debate is the only public poll I’ve seen on the race. That mid-June ranking placed Jackson businessman and GOP megadonor Foster Friess in fifth place, with a middling 7 percent of likely voters stating that they would vote for him if the election were held tomorrow. That led me to write Friess off as a serious candidate.

But two well-placed sources confirmed to me on background last week that, according to the private research conducted about the race, support for Friess has shot up in the weeks since the Wyoming PBS poll. Friess is now within striking distance of first place in the crowded, six-way contest where victory is possible with just 17 percent of the vote (though candidates are aiming for closer to 25 or 30 percent). He’s now in a tight battle with the three other top contenders: State Treasurer Mark Gordon, Cheyenne businessman Sam Galeotos and natural resources attorney Harriet Hageman.

When Friess unexpectedly entered the race last April he brought a hefty checkbook to what was already expected to be a close and expensive race. Though largely unknown in Wyoming prior to the race, Friess has since spent what appears to be a large amount of money buying television and online advertisements and hiring a gaggle of campaign staff. Meanwhile, Gordon, Galeotos and Hageman have mostly busied themselves attacking each other and let Friess coast along as the folksy and likable, if occasionally confusing and apparently unserious, candidate.

For example, in July Hageman went after Gordon and Galeotos aggressively during the PBS debate, and launched a website denouncing the duo, while saying nothing about Friess.

That may be starting to change as the candidates wise up to the threat being posed by Friess. Seeming to relish her role as the race’s brawler, Hageman added Friess to her list of opponents unfit for the job of governor during the Casper Star-Tribune’s governor debate held last week.

“We have a part-time Jackson jet-setter who vowed form the beginning that he was going to spend whatever it takes to win this race,” Hageman said in her closing statement. “If he is successful at doing this, we will never again have a true grassroots Wyomingite elected to higher office in this state.”

It’s unclear exactly where most of Friess’s newfound support is coming from. While he’s long had ties nationally to the evangelical Christian Republican base — a group that Hageman has also appealed to — his campaign messaging has more overlap with Galeotos, pitching Friess as a common sense conservative businessman.

Galeotos spokeswoman Amy Edmonds acknowledged in an interview that Friess was running a strong campaign.

“Foster definitely has run into our lane is doing some things that are very similar to us,” Edmonds said.

But she sought to emphasize that Galeotos’s roots run far deeper in Wyoming, including current investments in local Cheyenne businesses.

“Differentiation is going to be very important to make sure people understand that Sam is the candidate that is fifth-generation Wyomingite,” Edmonds said. “Sam is the candidate that lives in Wyoming full time.”

While Friess has lived in Jackson since the 1990s, Edmonds and Hageman have both alluded to Friess’s other residence in Scottsdale, Arizona. Last winter, the Friess family sent their holiday cards with Arizona postmarks.

“He’s a part-time resident of Arizona and Wyoming,” Republican consultant and Jackson resident Liz Brimmer told me in an interview last spring. “He’s a snowbird. He winters in a different state.”

In addition to money for his own campaign, Friess brings a host of political connections to the race from his years of supporting various Republican and conservative causes. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum appeared at a Casper event with Friess in late July and Donald Trump Jr. wrote an op-ed endorsing Friess in the Star-Tribune this past weekend.

The idea that these backers are literally indebted to Friess is not a stretch given Trump' Jr.’s own words in his endorsement piece:

Let me tell you a little bit about the Foster Fries that I know… Following my father clinching the Republican nomination, there was a short period where some conventional sources of funding had not yet opened up to us, but Foster was right there when we needed him and helped open the door to other early adopters in the donor community. His generous early support helped make it possible for us to fund our ongoing grassroots mobilization operation in states like Iowa, Michigan and Ohio.

Foster stepped up when we needed him most and made a real difference in my father’s campaign, and for that I will always be grateful.

He had our back in 2016 and I’m proud now to have his back as he runs for Governor of Wyoming.

Edmonds also noted that Friess received his grade from the National Rifle Association weeks ahead of any of the other governor candidates, an unusual step for the NRA, which Edmonds said typically releases grades for all candidates in a given race at once.

“I know first-hand your commitment to the U.S. Constitution and the individual freedom it protects,” NRA President Chris Cox wrote to Friess in a July 10 letter that Friess promoted to supporters in an email. “I appreciate your leadership — and your friendship.”

Galeotos and the other candidates received their scores at the end of July.

“I just wanted an explanation from the NRA about why Mr. Friess received (a score) before anyone else,” Edmonds said. “It’s fine but it’s a little annoying.”

Friess spokesman John Spina did not respond to an email asking why Friess received his NRA score early.

With just weeks left before the primary and the governor’s race appearing to widen from three top contenders to four, it’ll be interesting to see whether other candidates start going after Friess or whether Gordon and Galeotos — the two other wealthiest candidates — kick their spending into higher gear to compete.

Abortion questions remain

Speaking of Friess, his team still has not responded to the questions I put to the candidates following the July PBS debate regarding their stance on abortion laws in Wyoming were Roe v. Wade to be overturned.

Only Gordon and Galeotos responded to my inquiry, with Galeotos saying that he would support a total ban on abortion — with no exceptions, including life of the mother — and Gordon likewise calling for a ban, albeit one that would allow for exceptions in cases of medical emergency, rape and incest.

I circled back with both Friess and Hageman. Friess representative Spina said he was close to being able to provide an answer, but couldn’t do so yet.

“We've been asked this a lot recently and have mostly stuck with no comment, but I'm pushing him to make comment,” Spina said in an email.

Hageman personally replied to my email, though declined to directly address my questions (specifically, whether she would support a ban on abortion in Wyoming if the U.S. Supreme Court opened the path for states to do so).

“As I have repeatedly stated, I am pro-life and I believe that life begins at conception,” Hageman said. “I believe that all life is precious.”

I suppose it’s up to voters to press Friess and Hageman on exactly what kind of restrictions they’d like to see on abortion if elected governor.

Haynes stays in the race after all

Following what seemed like the end of perennial candidate Taylor Haynes’s candidacy this year due to residency concerns, a Wyoming judge has ruled that Haynes will appear on the primary ballot after all, according to the Laramie Boomerang.

Laramie County District Judge Thomas Campbell on Friday denied the state’s request to suspend Haynes’ campaign and put the brakes on further court proceedings.

This came after Wyoming Secretary of State Ed Buchanan, a strong backer of Hageman, ruled that Haynes did not meet the residency requirement to run for governor because he had not continuously resided in the state for the last five years. While Buchanan’s role was politically suspect, reporting on the issue — including several fine WyoFile articles by Graham — made it seem like Haynes truly had not lived in Wyoming (his ranch straddles the Colorado border, and the home was deemed to be on the Colorado side).

But Campbell deemed the issue to complicated to be resolved by the August 21 primary and Haynes declined to expedite the proceedings.

“I am surprised that Dr. Haynes unequivocally would not agree to an expedited hearing as a way to guarantee the swift resolution of this matter before the primary election,” Buchanan said in a statement Friday. “The constitutional requirement of five years of continuous residency is very clear, and my office and I will continue to seek that same clarity in how the law is applied.”

The whole thing is messy and its impact on the race is unclear. While both Haynes and Hageman draw on rural voters angry with governor regulation and the federal government, many observers have told me that Haynes’s supporters are extremely loyal and would have been unlikely to defect — even if he were found ineligible to be governor — and crossover to support Hageman. But without a ruling booting him from the ballot, whether or not Hageman would have seen a boost seems like a largely moot question.

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That’s it for this week, folks! Thanks for reading and once again, if you’re enjoying The Wildcatter please forward it around and encourage your friends to sign-up.