Gambling Could Be Wild Card In Texas Governor’s Race

June 2, 2022
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Gun violence is likely to be the central issue in this year’s governor’s race in Texas, but the legalization of casinos and sports betting could emerge as a significant factor in a campaign expected to be especially bitter and divisive.

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Gun violence is likely to be the central issue in this year’s governor’s race in Texas, but the legalization of casinos and sports betting could emerge as a significant factor in a campaign expected to be especially bitter and divisive.

Before the horrific mass shooting on May 24 left 19 elementary school students and two teachers dead in Uvalde, Texas, gambling already had become part of the debate in the race between Republican Governor Greg Abbott and Democratic gubernatorial nominee Beto O’Rourke.

O’Rourke, a former Democratic congressman from El Paso, said on April 20 he is inclined to support the legalization of sports betting and casinos in Texas.

During a recent gambling conference in New Jersey, a lobbyist who requested anonymity claimed Abbott supports sports betting not only in brick and mortar facilities but also online.

“I’ve heard an iteration of this – but more along the lines, ‘Governor Abbott won’t veto a mobile sports betting bill,’” said another gambling lobbyist who also requested anonymity.

Abbott’s press office did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the governor’s position on sports gambling.

Clyde Barrow, a political science professor at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley in Edinburg, said Abbott’s record shows the governor has been a strong opponent of gambling in all forms.

“However, Las Vegas Sands and others have been lobbying hard for over the last two years for resort casinos and sports betting,” Barrow said.

“Under the pressure of intense lobbying from interests who have contributed large sums to Abbott’s re-election campaign and facing the prospect of a looming recession, it is entirely possible that Governor Abbott could soften his opposition to expanded gambling by embracing sports betting,” Barrow said.

Las Vegas Sands has already contributed $75,000 this year to Abbott’s re-election campaign, according to the Texas Tribune.

In January 2016, Abbott flew to Israel on a plane owned by Las Vegas Sands chairman Sheldon Adelson to meet with then-Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu.

After Adelson’s death last year, his widow Miriam, who is the majority owner of Sands, visited Abbott in March 2021 during Sands’ unsuccessful lobbying campaign for casinos in the Lone Star State.

Apparently undeterred by last year’s $10m failure in Texas, Sands is already mobilizing for a new lobbying push in the state capital of Austin when state lawmakers convene for a new biennial session in January 2023.

A bill introduced during the 2021 session would have allowed four destination-resort casinos as well as smaller operations at racetracks. Meanwhile, separate legislation supported by an alliance of leading online sports betting companies and Texas' major league sports teams would have authorized sports wagering at tracks and pro sports arenas, as well as via online platforms chosen as the partners of sports teams.

Mike Lavigne, a member of the Austin Downtown Commission who has lobbied for gambling expansion in Texas, said he would be surprised if Abbott ever publicly expressed support for sports betting.

“Sports betting seems unlikely [in Texas],” Lavigne said.

“The state is flush with cash from the feds and oil. Why would the legislature decide to finally take a gambling vote on something that puts a casino in everyone’s pocket but very little in the state’s pocket?”

Abbott’s national political ambitions could be another factor in his calculus on gambling.

Abbott has not ruled out running for president in 2024, and if he does, Republican Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida is likely to be one of his more formidable rivals.

DeSantis is on record as a sports betting advocate after negotiating a new gambling compact last year with the Seminole Tribe of Florida.

By allowing sports betting in Texas, Abbott could neutralize any advantage DeSantis might have on the gambling issue and potentially gain support among libertarian and independent voters.

But first, Abbott must defeat O’Rourke, who confronted the governor during a news conference after the tragedy in Uvalde.

“You are doing nothing,” O’Rourke, an ardent gun-control advocate, told the governor.

Two weeks before the Uvalde shooting, a poll sponsored by the Dallas Morning News showed Abbott leading O’Rourke 46 percent to 39 percent.

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