I would like to personally thank Foster Friess for deciding to run for the GOP nomination to be Wyoming’s next governor.
In one fell swoop, the race transformed from a bland contest of five out of six candidates trying to out-Trump each other to a real political carnival guaranteed to earn some national headlines.
Do I care if T.V. pundits on cable news shows have something to talk about in what they consider “quaint” Wyoming? Not in the least. But I do want to be entertained by the flip-flops and foibles of the candidates, and Friess promises to fit in nicely with my personal wish.
The multi-millionaire philanthropist brings a lot of money into the race, forcing other candidates to sharpen their fundraising games. Several won’t have a game to improve and may drop out early, so we should enjoy the eccentricities they bring to the contest now.
None of them can hold a candle to Friess when it comes to making odd, outrageous statements like he did at the recent Wyoming Republican state convention in Laramie. For what seemed like absolutely no reason at all, Friess launched into a diatribe that set a new low standard for other politicians to beat.
Friess began by calling for a return to “civility” in politics, then suggested that former President Obama funneled money that was supposed to be used to fight climate change to help his relatives in a foreign country — one that the newbie candidate couldn’t even remember or pronounce.
“Zoowanatou … it’s some little country I’ve never been,” a bewildered Friess told an even more bewildered crowd. “[The money] probably ended up with the president’s cousins.”
As WyoFile reporter Andrew Graham reported, Friess was most likely referring to the South Pacific island of Vanuatu, which received about $26 million from the $9 billion-plus, internationally funded Green Climate Fund. Trump criticized Obama for pledging to send $3 billion to the fund but it took Friess to add the clever but phony charge that the money had been destined to line the pockets of the former president’s relatives.
Maybe Friess confused “Zoowanatou” with Kenya. It was a crazy claim, but perhaps crazy like a fox. Obama isn’t on the ballot this year but he’s still seen as Public Enemy No. 1 in Wyoming conservative circles. Finding new cause to bash — real or imagined — can still attract the heart of Trump’s base.
The fact that Trump won 70 percent of Wyoming’s votes in the 2016 presidential race has certainly not been lost on the other gubernatorial hopefuls. Just look at the latest fundraising letter from State Treasurer Mark Gordon, unquestionably the perceived front-runner four months before the primary.
“Like me, you think the out-of-state liberals telling us how to run Wyoming can get pretty aggravating — and yes, I’m talking about the federal government under Barack Obama,” Gordon wrote. “We’re all encouraged to see a pro free enterprise, pro American energy President Trump at the helm after the miserable eight years of the anti-Western administration we just survived.”
It’s disappointing to see Gordon, who ran as a moderate when he challenged Congresswoman Cynthia Lummis in 2008, pandering to the rightmost-wing of the Republican Party. Then again, Gordon lost that race, so maybe he thinks being pro-Trump is his surest path to victory.
Speaking of Lummis — long considered a candidate herself before she surprised observers last year with her decision not to run — the former U.S. Representative has thrown her support to Cheyenne businessman Sam Galeotos. The endorsement should help him gain some statewide name recognition, which he is sorely lacking.
One thing that won’t help Galeotos is an unintentionally hilarious video he posted on his Facebook page that may be the worst 30-second campaign spot in the state’s political history. It shows Galeotos at Little America, with the wind so nasty it drowns out nearly every word he says. It deserves to go viral.
Perhaps the most conservative candidate in the crowded field is Taylor Haynes, a rancher and retired urologist from Cheyenne who has run for governor two other times. He takes his entire platform from the right-wing playbook, beginning with his self-description as a “constitutionalist conservative.”
Haynes, who wears a distinctive black cowboy hat, wants Wyoming to have the constitutional ability to secede from the United States. He would like all federal land turned over to state management, and he wants to change the state’s public schools’ funding into a voucher system.
There’s a temptation to put Haynes into the fringe-candidate category, but he doesn’t necessarily belong there. In the 2014 GOP primary for governor he finished second to Matt Mead, capturing an impressive 31,532 votes, nearly one-third of the total.
For sheer audacity no one comes close to Rex Rammell, a Rock Springs veterinarian who ran a brief campaign for the U.S. House in 2016 before dropping out. While running for Idaho’s governor in 2009 he was universally condemned when he “joked” about buying a license to hunt Obama. In Wyoming parades in 2016 he led horses draped with fake corpses meant to represent federal agencies.
Cheyenne attorney Harriet Hageman, who specializes in water rights, is conservative though much more low-key than most of her opponents. In the case of several, especially Rammell, that’s a good thing. If she wins the nomination she would face former Democratic state legislator Mary Throne, ensuring Wyoming would have its first woman governor since 1926.
The one candidate who could easily separate himself from the rest of the conservative pack is moderate Bill Dahlin, a Sheridan businessman who is running on a platform of economic diversification. The first Republican to announce his candidacy last summer, Dahlin plans to visit all the state’s 99 municipalities.
Dahlin is the only candidate who stresses that the state must come up with an alternative to relying on the minerals sector, which pays about 70 percent of the taxes that run state government. He supports Wyoming strongly backing industrial hemp, which the Legislature made legal last year.
Friess is the wild card whose strategy, whatever it is, should set the tone for the campaign. If he just wants to spend his money playing politics as a candidate instead of a donor this time, his impact could be limited. But I think his penchant for saying weird things — most famously for telling a reporter that in his day women practiced birth control by placing a Bayer aspirin between their knees — will dominate discussions and force his opponents to find creative ways to share his spotlight.
Trump voters who were enchanted by his business acumen, even though the president went through four bankruptcies, may be enthralled by Friess’ investing success. The philanthropy factor may also come into play, since Friess has won numerous accolades for his family’s charitable contributions.
But Friess has also given a lot of his wealth to decidedly conservative causes like the National Christian Foundation, an anti-abortion group that operates fake abortion clinics counseling women not to have the procedure.
Can Friess do better running his own race instead of writing checks behind the scenes? If the only factors needed were money and making headlines, I’d say he has a shot. But I fully expect him not to win or even finish in the top two. Friess admitted at the state convention he knows little about Wyoming issues, and I don’t think there’s enough time to get up to speed.
Wyoming already has one wealthy Jackson Hole resident in high office in the state in Rep. Liz Cheney, and voters don’t have a desperate need to add another who has never held political office. On Aug. 21, when the party has its primary, it will ask voters, “Do you want Friess with that?” And I think the majority will say “no thanks.”
Kerry Drake is a veteran Wyoming journalist, and a contributor to WyoHistory.org. He also moderates the WyPols blog. He has more than 30 years experience at the Wyoming Eagle and Casper Star-Tribune as a reporter, editor and editorial writer. He lives in Casper.