The Money Man Behind Rick Santorum: Who Is Foster S. Friess?

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Foster FriessIn this post-Citizens United era, every presidential candidate needs the backing of a super PAC, one of those independent political action committees that can accept unlimited contributions from corporations, unions, other groups and individuals. That applies even to incumbents: On Tuesday, President Barack Obama reversed himself and asked his financial backers to donate money to super PACs supporting his reelection campaign. Previously, the president had called unlimited spending by such groups "a threat to our democracy."

And behind each super PAC, it seems, is at least one extremely wealthy donor, committed for his own reasons to a particular candidate. Newt Gingrich has casino mogul Sheldon Adelson; Rick Santorum, who stunned the political world Tuesday night by winning three (admittedly nonbinding) state GOP contests -- in Colorado, Missouri and Minnesota -- has Foster S. Friess, a hugely successful investor who calls himself, rather immodestly, "the man atop the horse."

A Born-Again Philanthropist

In 1974, Friess founded the mutual fund management company Friess Associates, which currently has in excess of $4.6 billion in assets under management. Before that, Friess -- a Wisconsin native who grew up on a cattle ranch and studied business administration at the state university -- spent two years in Army Intelligence and served as director of research for a New York Stock Exchange firm. Friess is said to have sold 51% of his eponymous company in 2001 for $247 million, but reportedly still holds a 10% stake.

The central fact of Friess' personal life seems to be his status as a born-again Christian. Shortly after launching Friess Associates, he found himself, by his own account, in "a marriage flirting with divorce," raising "emotionally distant children." Citing Blaise Pascal's maxim -- "Within each person is a God-shaped vacuum that only God can fill" -- Friess found religion: In October 1978, he has said (with surprising casualness), "I did one of those 'born again' things and invited Jesus to become the 'Chairman of the Board' -- of my life."

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The following decades saw him achieve massive success: Friess Associates' flagship Brandywine Fund averaged 20% annual gains in the 1990s; Business Week dubbed Friess the "longest surviving successful growth stock picker." (Buy-and-Hold Isn't His Style, announced the profile's headline.)

In the midst of these windfalls, the newly-minted Christian turned his attention to philanthropy. Friess cites Scripture as the inspiration for his financial altruism -- specifically, Galatians 6:2 ("When we carry one another's burdens, we fulfill the law of Christ") and Matthew 25:35-40 ("When you do it for the least of my brethren, you do it for Me") -- but his commitment to giving is braided together with sociopolitical conviction. Specifically, Friess holds a firm belief that "private individuals are called to carry others' burdens -- rather than relying on the government to do so." In support of that philosophy, Friess has gone so far as to offer a musical festival $40,000 on the condition that they refuse $11,000 in government funding. The event organizers accepted.

Friess' philanthropy is extensive -- his grant-making foundation is capitalized with more than $100 million -- and his desire to help others seems sincere. But the man atop the horse is given to strange, theatrical gestures. Take, for instance, the climax of the lavish four-day celebration he threw for his and his wife Lynette's 70th birthdays in July 2010. In the invitations, he had asked his 200 guests to identify their favorite charity (one that reflected Galatians 6:2, of course), and said that he would donate $70,000 (get it?) to the worthiest nominee.

With Four Seasons waiters handing out envelopes on silver platters, Friess instructed that the winner should stand up and shout in celebration while everyone else remained seated. As the envelopes were opened, WyoFile reports, "people exploded up from every table, shouting 'I won! I won!' The Friesses had surprised their guests by writing $70,000 checks to every one of the nominated charities -- a show of generosity that cost them $7.7 million. (In most cases, each couple at the party designated a single charity.)"

Foster FriessThe Political Calculus of Choosing Santorum

It was probably inevitable that someone as rich as Friess, with such adamant convictions on questions of society and government, would wind up being a major political donor. But why Santorum?

Strongly-held religious beliefs are an obvious point of connection. Santorum has long been animated by his Catholic faith, vocally opposing abortion and gay rights. (He famously lumped homosexuality together with pedophilia and bestiality in an interview with the Associated Press.)

Crucially, the statement on government found on Friess' website mentions "economic freedom" (emphasis added), along with government efficiency and individual responsibility. Thus, Friess' commitment to limited government might not be in conflict with Santorum's belief that government has the right "to limit individuals' wants and passions ... because there are consequences to letting people live out whatever wants or passions they desire." (Compare that with Friess's assertion that "we Americans today cede too much power to our elected representatives, and we need to take that power back.")

Friess also expresses deep concern over the threat he perceives from radical Islam, which he has called "the most threatening movement in the world today," "more powerful than Nazism or even Communism ever was." Santorum is simpatico with Friess here, having been outspoken in defending America's war in Iraq and taking a hard line against Iran. But so is Newt Gingrich -- and the super PAC to which Friess is the largest donor, the Red White and Blue Fund, has given to the former Speaker of the House as well. But the amount the group has spent on pro-Gingrich ads -- more than $70,000 -- is eclipsed by the $2.2 million spent so far on Santorum. By comparison, the former Pennsylvania senator's campaign has spent less than $1 million dollars on its own so far.

Ultimately, Friess' support for Santorum, whom he has said he will back through March, appears to be based on the calculus of electability. Friess wants a GOP nominee who can beat Barack Obama, whose stances on taxes and health care he opposes, and in his view, Santorum is the man to do it.

"From his genuine appeal to blue collar families to his intelligent thinking about policy, Santorum is emerging to be the best shot at a victory for Founding Father values in 2012," reads a blog post on Friess' website. Romney and Gingrich are too compromised, in Friess's eyes, by their past support for climate change legislation, Wall Street bailouts, and individual mandates in health care.

But if Santorum should falter as the Republican primary process drags on, count on Friess to channel more of his millions towards whoever emerges as the eventual nominee. And Friess's fortune is denominated in millions: For all his success, he is not, contrary to some reports, a billionaire. "Hope I make it some day," Friess told a reporter for Forbes, "and will be on your list."
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