CHEYENNE – Republican candidate for governor Foster Friess is slowly developing policy positions, but it’s hard to tell yet how his broad political convictions will compare to his primary opponents who are more well-versed in state government issues.
Friess – a successful investor, GOP megadonor, national news commentator and philanthropist – made a stop Wednesday in Cheyenne to meet with voters as his campaign gets underway. He was the seventh Republican to enter the GOP primary to replace Republican Gov. Matt Mead as his second and final term nears its end.
It’s an interesting development in the primary battle as his vast resources and connections to national figures make his candidacy something never seen before in Wyoming.
Many expect this year’s gubernatorial campaign to see unprecedented levels of spending in Wyoming electoral history. Friess told attendees at Wednesday’s event that he would be sourcing most of his contributions from out of state, and said he wanted to put a cap of $5 on Wyoming contributors. When asked why entities outside of Wyoming would contribute to his campaign, Friess said, “Because they love me.” As to how much he expects his campaign to spend, Friess said “whatever it takes.”
“A couple million, $3 million; might take $4 million,” he said. “God’s given me a lot of money, and I’m draining it out of my kids’ inheritance.”
Though he’s called on by news networks to comment on national issues, Friess conceded when he made his announcement in April that he had a lot to learn about state government in Wyoming. Friess said he plans to attend a GOP candidate forum May 19 in Cheyenne with his opponents where specifics on policies will no doubt come up. With that event less than two weeks out, Friess said “we’ll see” how he measures up compared to the other candidates.
“I’ll have people brief me on what the issues are, but they could come up with some off-the-wall issues,” he said.
“The important thing is I have the skill set to gather information very quickly to figure out what the answer should be. So if I know the answers to or ideas on how to stabilize the budget, diversify the economy and how to improve our education system, that’s the focus. And if people want to (focus on) grizzlies and sage grouse, we can deal with that later.”
And those three areas of the state’s budget, economic diversification and funding for K-12 education will almost certainly be topics of interest. Wyoming continues to struggle through an economic downturn that’s left the state with deficits ranging from $500 million to $1 billion, depending on who is asked. Mead launched his economic diversification mandate, known as ENDOW – standing for Economically Needed Diversity Options for Wyoming – that he hopes will be carried on by his successor. When it comes to K-12 education, the Wyoming Legislature’s 2018 budget session saw $27 million cut from the escalating cost of education in the next two years, which compounds a $77 million reduction in the previous session.
Most Republican candidates have touted policy positions of reducing government spending if elected, but Friess said he wants to maintain education spending levels and make sure teachers are well compensated. The money to cover that, he said, would come from a robust economy he would foster. Friess was less specific when asked about other areas of government, only speaking to what seemed to be a reference to investing state dollars in private businesses and advocating for efficiency.
“I want to get rid of waste, but if they’re spending on stuff we don’t need to have …,” Friess began saying before switching gears. “When I have a meeting, I ask, ‘What’s 100 percent success?’ It’s the same question. If you want to do this project, I want to know how much we’re going to spend on it and how much do you expect to get out of it. If they can’t tell me, ‘Hey, we’re going to spend $100,000, but we’re thinking we can get our money back in two years,’ then it’s gone.”
As for ENDOW, Friess said he was skeptical. The Wyoming Business Council, he said, “seems to be doing the same thing before ENDOW came along,” though Mead and Business Council leaders have emphasized the agency and initiative have their own respective goals and objectives.
Friess said he’d like to see existing businesses in Wyoming succeed before trying to attract more out of state entities, but lacked specificity on what policies he would support to make that happen, though he was “not convinced a lot of government subsidies are the way to go.” Instead, he said he wanted to “ignite the creativity and entrepreneurial spirit of Wyoming citizens in every community in the state.”
“The policy is a) how do we grow existing businesses rather than bringing in new business; and two, how to make existing business more profitable,” Friess said.
Liz Brimmer, a Republican consultant in Wyoming, said it’s an unusual dynamic to have a “part-time resident” of Wyoming try to position themselves as a front-runner in the race to be governor.
“It’s a legitimate question – when you spend winters away and the legislative session is in the winter, there are some practicalities to the candidacy,” she said. “For those that have wondered, ‘Does he live here full-time?’ That’s the question.”
But Friess said Wednesday that he spends “maybe 10 months, six months, eight months” in Wyoming in any given year. If elected governor, he said he’d be here more.
Friess touted his connections to national political figures, such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, as ways he could be a more effective governor. When asked about rumors in Republican circles he is seeking an endorsement and possible visit to Wyoming by President Donald Trump in a show of support for his gubernatorial campaign, Friess said he had no comment.