Politics

Pac Man

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Recently, Foster Friess, a 71-year-old billionaire, was on a hunting trip in Tanzania when he heard that there was a 14-foot crocodile in the vicinity. “The natives had told us where it was,” Friess recounted to me over the phone. He and his party set out to track it down, but, when they approached the giant reptile on a sandbar, it caught their scent and slid into the water.

Friess and company piled into a tiny boat and searched the river. Hours later, they found the crocodile sunning himself on a bank. Friess aimed, fired, and killed it. A few days after we spoke, he sent me a picture of himself with the crocodile. It shows a white-haired man dwarfed by the massive animal, which is sprawled out on the dusty bank, its jaw propped open with a stick to reveal its jagged white teeth.

When Friess returned home to the United States, it was to a pursuit even more far-fetched than killing giant crocodilestrying to get Rick Santorum elected president. Friess is responsible for $331,000 of the $730,000 raised by Santorum’s Super PAC, the Red White and Blue Fund. He has also kicked in a third of the $150,000 raised by Leaders for Families, another pro-Santorum Super PAC. Friess has promised to keep the spigot open until the February 28 Michigan primary, if not beyond.

Rich eccentrics are nothing new in politics. But, thanks to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling and the unlimited Super PAC donations it allows, these eccentrics can now sustain campaigns that would have otherwise dropped out of view long ago. Newt Gingrich has Las Vegas magnate Sheldon Adelson; Ron Paul has PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel; Santorum has Friess. And, no matter what ultimately happens in the GOP presidential primaries, Friess is already beginning to contemplate which races he might be able to influence next.

 

FOSTER FRIESS GREW UP in the small Wisconsin town of Rice Lake, where his father was a cattle dealer. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin in 1962, Friess joined the Army and married college beauty queen Lynnette Estes. They kept a tight budget; Lynn sewed her own clothes and cut her husband’s hair.

Things changed when Friess got into the mutual fund business. By the early ’70s, he was making six figures. It was around this time that he became born again, or, as he puts it, “invited God to become chairman of the board of my life.” By the late ’80s, Friess was known for his aggressive management of the multibillion-dollar Brandywine mutual fund. He sold his majority stake in 2001 but stayed heavily invested in the firm.

Friess’s retirement has been geared toward giving money away rather than making it. Since the 1990s, Friess has donated millions to various causesfrom freshwater projects in Malawi to a lobby that would allow the Delaware Museum of Natural History to house a 32-foot replica of a giant squid. In 2010, for his seventieth birthday, Friess and his wife brought 200 guests to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, for a four-day party. On the final night, he gave every guest a $70,000 check for their favorite charity, at a total of $7.7 million. A relative later called the gesture “typical Foster form.”

Meanwhile, Friess had also been donating hundreds of thousands to conservative causes. In 1994, he helped finance Santorum’s narrow Senate victory, launching him to national prominence. Since 1989, Friess has contributed nearly $1.6 million to Republican campaignsplus a few other massive donations, including $3 million to help start the conservative website The Daily Caller. Currently, he is considering a six- or seven-figure donation to the conservative Super PAC American Crossroads or its sister organization, Crossroads GPS.

When I asked him why he gives, Friess told me, “I want to make sure the people we elect to office believe in America.” But he is also motivated by a particular commitment to social conservatism. At a 2002 black-tie dinner hosted by the Becket Fund, a conservative legal organization, Friess delivered a rambling speech titled “Tolerance is not Always Good,” in which he chastised the gay community for intolerance toward Christian values and seemed to blame liberals for the school shootings at Columbine. “How hard have those intolerant of John Adams’s perspective worked to strip from young people any hope of knowing the concepts and truths that help deal with life?” he asked. “I think we should be encouraged to learn from Columbine and let it be a battle cry for all of us.” Freiss, says his philanthropic adviser, Matthew Taylor, differs from other major donors because he is not linked to any business or corporation; he “is doing this truly out of the passions of his heart.”

Although Friess has been mocked for sticking with Santorum, his money arguably played a significant role in the primary. Exit polls show that most caucus-goers in Iowa who decided to vote for Santorum did so in the last weeks before the caucus, when Iowa was flooded with ads made possible by Friess’s largesse.

Now Friess is hoping to have an even bigger impact on several crucial races in the fall. He told me he plans “for sure” to give to eight or ten key Senate races. His favored candidates include Denny Rehberg, who is currently locked in a virtual tie with Montana’s vulnerable Democratic senator, Jon Tester; Josh Mandel, who is challenging liberal Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown; and Dan Liljenquist, a far-right primary challenger to Republican Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah. In all three races, a large cash infusion could make a big difference. Sooner or later, it seems, Foster Friess’s relentlessness is bound to pay off. Just ask the crocodile.

Molly Redden is a reporter-researcher at The New Republic. This article originally appeared in the March 1, 2012 issue of the magazine.

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