WASHINGTON — A billionaire Wyoming investor has pledged to give up to a half-million dollars in matching money to an outside spending group that supports Rick Santorum for the GOP presidential nomination.
Foster Friess put up a good chunk of the $537,000 that the Santorum "super" PAC, the Red White and Blue Fund, spent on ads to help the candidate come in a close second to Mitt Romney in the Iowa caucuses earlier this month.
Now the 71-year-old Friess says he's sent a note to 5,000 "sportsmen" pledging to match whatever they donate to the super PAC, up to $500,000, which could be crucial to Santorum's chances of halting Romney's march to his party's presidential nomination.
Friess declined to be more specific.
"The Democrats will chew Romney up because of his patrician background," Friess said in an interview Sunday night, explaining his support for Santorum over the former Massachusetts governor. "It's not his fault. Who's going to be more appealing to blue-collar workers?"
Romney, a member of a prominent political family, is a very wealthy former head of Bain Capital, a private equity firm that's received much criticism lately from other Republicans as practicing cutthroat capitalism that pared payrolls. Friess noted that Santorum's grandfather was a coal miner.
Friess made his fortune running mutual funds and is a keen stock picker. He's a veteran supporter of conservative causes, a born-again Christian and an ally of the much-richer Koch brothers, wealthy industrialists who bankroll many conservative causes. Friess said he'd called several wealthy friends to urge them to back Santorum, a former Pennsylvania congressman and senator, by helping the super PAC.
Friess declined to identify anyone he'd called.
Despite a big financial disadvantage for Santorum, and polls that find he's lagging well behind Romney in South Carolina, Friess is ready to shell out more big money because he thinks the Pennsylvanian has the best shot at winning the White House. "I think we'll have a better chance of winning with a fresh face," Friess said.
Santorum on Saturday picked up the backing of a group of about 100 prominent evangelical leaders, including James Dobson and Gary Bauer, after a meeting in Texas that was designed to get conservative Christian leaders to coalesce behind one candidate.
"America is a moral enterprise, not an economic enterprise," Santorum said pointedly on Sunday in South Carolina.
Freely allowing that he and Santorum talk regularly, Friess said the candidate had called him a few days ago to "bring me up to date" on the campaign's progress in South Carolina, which holds its primary Saturday. Asked whether he talks to Santorum about his financial support for the Red White and Blue Fund, which is legally barred from coordinating its activities with the campaign, Friess said, "I think Santorum is OK with it."
Santorum and Friess met in the mid-1990s through the National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, which Friess supported when Santorum was eyeing a Senate race. The big issues that Friess said he and Santorum were in sync on include slashing income taxes, replacing the Obama-backed health care law with a system that includes more private health savings accounts and cutting regulations.
"Our government is strangling our workers with a foot on their throats," Friess fumed.
Friess indicated that even if Santorum doesn't get the nomination, he's going to help underwrite other big outside GOP groups that intend to spend hundreds of millions to ensure that the party defeats President Barack Obama and wins control of the Senate.
"If we don't replace Obama and win the Senate, we're looking at a one-party system for the next 30 or 40 years," Friess said. "It's the death knell of the two-party system."
Friess said he planned to attend the semiannual meeting for scores of wealthy conservatives that the Koch brothers will host later this month in California, as he's done for about four years. Last year, Charles Koch cited Friess as one of more than two dozen wealthy donors who'd given at least $1 million to conservative causes that the Kochs support, according to a tape of Koch's remarks that Mother Jones magazine released.
"The Kochs are a national treasure," Friess said. "They're true patriots."
Friess said that in 2010 he wrote a six-figure check to the conservative American Action Network, a nonprofit group that isn't required to publicly disclose its donors and is chaired by Republican former Sen. Norm Coleman of Minnesota.
Friess has donated at least $475,000 to the Republican Governors Association since 2009, including $250,000 to the association's Pennsylvania unit, according to the Pennsylvania Department of State.
Friess family members have given $616,000 in federal campaign contributions since the 2008 election cycle, all of it to Republican candidates and committees, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of data from the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan organization that tracks money in U.S. politics.
Friess and his wife, Lynette, gave $5,000 to Santorum and $5,000 to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich for their 2012 presidential campaigns. They gave $1,000 to Romney for his 2012 campaign and $2,300 for his 2008 run.
(John Dunbar of the Center for Public Integrity contributed to this report.)
(The Center for Public Integrity is a nonprofit investigative news organization in Washington.)
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