In Their Best Political Year Yet, Gaming Tribes Eye Oklahoma Governor

October 24, 2022
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With victories already achieved in Florida and Maine and a historic triumph at hand in California, gaming tribes are gaining traction in their campaign to oust perhaps their most despised foe, Republican Governor Kevin Stitt of Oklahoma.

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With victories already achieved in Florida and Maine and a historic triumph at hand in California, gaming tribes are gaining traction in their campaign to oust perhaps their most despised foe, Republican Governor Kevin Stitt of Oklahoma.

At the beginning of this election year, it seemed unfathomable that Stitt would struggle to win a second four-year term in a state which Donald Trump carried by more than 33 points in the 2020 presidential election.

But as of October 18, just three weeks before the November 8 election, Stitt led his Republican-turned-Democratic opponent, Joy Hofmeister, by only a single point — 44.9 percent to 43.9 percent — according to the polling firm 538.

“It’s the big casino bosses, it’s the big tribes,” Stitt told the Oklahoman, the state’s largest newspaper in Oklahoma City.

It is unclear how much tribes have contributed to the governor’s race, but Stitt has been the target of more than $12.5m in television attack ads.

The irony is that Stitt is a member of the Cherokee Nation, one of five tribes which took the unprecedented step this month of jointly endorsing an Oklahoma gubernatorial candidate.

And that candidate was not Stitt, but Hofmeister.

The other four Oklahoma tribes endorsing Hofmeister included the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee and Seminole.

Oklahoma tribes are not prepared to forgive or forget Stitt’s unsuccessful effort to renegotiate gambling compacts during his first year in office, pushing tribes to pay increased revenue sharing and rejecting their arguments that compacts automatically renewed for a second term of 15 years.

“I think the political power of gaming tribes is not to be underestimated,” said John Holden, an assistant business professor at Oklahoma State University who writes about the gaming industry.

“The benefits of tribal gaming since the early 1990s have extended far beyond the tribes themselves and flowed back to the states,” Holden said.

That means the tribes have collected a bounty of political IOUs, and the influence of gaming tribes on elections has never been more evident than in 2022.

On January 28, after spending $36m, DraftKings and FanDuel abandoned their campaign to put a sports betting referendum on the November 8 election ballot in Florida.

Three days later, Las Vegas Sands failed to obtain enough signatures for a ballot measure to allow commercial casinos in North Florida near Jacksonville.

Both initiatives faltered in large part because of the opposition of the Seminole Tribe in Florida, which retained its virtual gambling monopoly in the Sunshine State.

On May 2, Democratic Governor Janet Mills of Maine signed a bill into law which gives four federally recognized tribes in the Pine State a monopoly on internet sports betting.

Mills, who vetoed a sports betting bill just two years ago, is virtually a lock for re-election this year.

Maine was a disappointment for the DraftKings/FanDuel lobbying tandem, but a much larger disappointment for them is likely to occur on November 8 when California voters are expected to reject Proposition 27, which would allow commercial sports betting companies to enter the Golden State’s market.

DraftKings/FanDuel and their commercial sports betting partners helped set a new record for spending on a state referendum, but are likely to come away with nothing but the enduring enmity of California tribes.

“In states like California, Florida and Oklahoma where there are firmly established legal, political and business bases for existing tribal gaming and hospitality enterprises, and the general public is both generally accepting of tribal casinos and broadly supportive of tribal sovereignty, gaming tribes are especially willing and able to spend, compete and even win in the state political arena,” said Steven Light, co-director of the Institute for the Study of Tribal Gaming Law & Policy at the University of North Dakota.

“How state politics work isn’t of tribes’ own making, but they have proved they have what it takes to play the game,” Light said.

Gaming tribes control the gambling market in California and Florida — two of the Big Three when it comes to the currently unregulated states most coveted by the online sports betting industry.

Texas, the other member of the Big Three, is likely to dominate the attention of online gambling lobbyists in 2023.

And even though the Lone Star State remains a forbidden frontier for the gambling industry, the Tigua Indians of El Paso won a U.S. Supreme Court case in June which could lead to gambling expansion in Texas.

“The economic impacts (of Indian gaming) are manifest, with tribes doing a good job of making sure that the numbers are well known,” said Joe Valandra, a former chief of staff of the National Indian Gaming Commission and tribal gaming consultant.

“Gaming is one of the drivers of this, but the multiplier effect of employment, purchases and investments made by tribes overall is one of the key reasons for the growth of influence,” Valandra said.

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