01/16/2012 03:28 pm ET Updated Mar 17, 2012

Wyoming billionaire pledges a half-million-dollar matching contribution to Santorum 'super PAC'

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A billionaire Wyoming investor has pledged to give up to a half-million dollars in matching funds to an outside spending group that supports Pennsylvania Republican Rick Santorum.

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 Santorum come in a close second to Mitt Romney in the Iowa caucuses.

Now, the 71-year-old Friess said he has sent a note to 5,000 "sportsmen" pledging that he will match whatever they donate to the super PAC, up to $500,000, which is expected to be crucial to Santorum's chances of halting Romney's march to his party's presidential nomination. He declined to be more specific.

"The Democrats will chew Romney up because of his patrician background," Friess said in an interview with iWatch News, in explaining his support for Santorum over the Massachusetts Republican. "It's not his fault. Who's going to be more appealing to blue-collar workers?"

Romney is a member of a prominent political family and is a very wealthy former head of a private equity firm that has received hefty criticism lately from other Republicans. Friess noted that Santorum's grandfather was a coal miner. 

Friess made his fortune running mutual funds and is a keen stock picker. He is a veteran supporter of conservative causes, a born-again Christian and ally of the much-richer Koch brothers. Friess said he's called several wealthy friends urging them to back Santorum, a former Pennsylvania congressman and senator, by helping the super PAC.

Friess declined to identify any of the people he called.

Despite a big financial disadvantage for Santorum, and polls showing he is still lagging well behind Romney in South Carolina, Friess is ready to shell out more big money because he believes 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 late last week 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 unite behind one candidate.

"America is a moral enterprise not an economic enterprise," Santorum said pointedly on Sunday at a restaurant in South Carolina.

Freely allowing that he and Santorum talk regularly, Friess said that the candidate called him a few days ago to "bring me up to date"  on the campaign's progress in South Carolina, which holds its primary on Saturday. Asked if 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 that "I think Santorum is okay with it."

Santorum and the Jackson, Wyoming-based Friess met first 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 are 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, referring to the federal income tax system.

But Friess also 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 GOP nominee defeats President Barack Obama and win 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 plans to attend the semi-annual 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 gave 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."

Additionally, 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 former Republican Sen. Norm Coleman of Minnesota.

Friess also donated at least $475,000 to the Republican Governors Association since 2009-- including $250,000 to the RGA's Pennsylvania unit, according to the Pennsylvania Department of State.

Foster and family members have given $616,000 in federal 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.

Foster and his wife Lynette gave $5,000 to Santorum and $5,000 to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich for their 2012 presidential campaigns. They also gave $1,000 to Romney for his 2012 campaign and $2,300 for his 2008 run.  

Friess, who speaks in a folksy style, has lately called himself "an underdog billionaire," in deference to much wealthier GOP super-donors like Las Vegas casino tycoon Sheldon Adelson, who wrote a $5 million check to the pro-Gingrich "Winning Our Future" super PAC. Adelson has been listed on Forbes magazine's most recent rankings of the richest Americans as having a net worth of $21.5 billion.

The Republican field, which has shrunk by one candidate with former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman's announcement Monday that he's dropping out of the race and backing Romney, will stage a debate tonight in Myrtle Beach, S.C.

John Dunbar contributed to this report.





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