Why Kentucky Should Legalize Sports Betting, Part II: The Governor’s Race – Opinion

Posted on: February 4, 2023, 02:10h. 

Last updated on: February 6, 2023, 12:00h.

NOTE: This is the second in a series of pieces I’m writing stating my case for why Kentucky needs to legalize sports betting. You can read my first piece here.

When the debate over legalizing sports betting in the Kentucky General Assembly picks up later this month, you may hear some people say they want to see it happen, but now’s not the right time.

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear (left, center) prepares to give his State of the Commonwealth address to the Kentucky General Assembly last month at the State Capitol. Beshear is a supporter of sports betting who is running for reelection this year. (Image: Casino.org)

They will say that Republicans, who control both chambers in the state legislature, do not need to hand Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat, a legislative victory in a year he’s seeking re-election.

Those people would be wrong. Here’s why.

Election Still Several Months Away

Let’s start in 2019. At that time, just a year after The Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992 (PASPA) decision in the US Supreme Court, then-Kentucky Attorney General Beshear was the Democratic nominee for governor, facing then-Gov. Matt Bevin. It was a bitter election that was decided by just 5,136 votes out of the more than 1.4 million ballots cast.

A key plank in Beshear’s campaign platform was a call for expanded gaming in the state. That ran counter to Bevin, a Republican who wasn’t particularly well-liked in his party and frequently spoke against legalizing sports betting and casinos. While there were a couple of other issues, Beshear’s position on gaming did motivate some voters to go to the polls for him, so it was a pivotal issue leading to his narrow victory.

Would signing a sports betting bill into law allow Beshear to take a victory lap? Barring something unexpected, the answer would be yes. But that victory lap would likely happen some seven months before the November election.

A lot can happen politically in seven months. Last year, during that amount of time, we went from what was expected to be a Republican romp in national elections to the Democrats winning the US Senate and nearly holding on to the US House.

Beshear would still tout sports betting on the campaign trail. Still, its impact would be muted as voters, especially Republican voters, who picked Beshear four years ago because of his views on the subject would need to find another reason to vote for him. Democrats and maybe Independents probably would stay with him. But Republicans, who make up the state’s largest political party, likely would gravitate back to their candidate – especially since it was a Republican majority in the legislature that passed the bill.

GOP Candidate Backing Gaming Isn’t a Sure Bet

And speaking of the Republican gubernatorial candidate, we don’t know who that is yet. We won’t until the May primary, which occurs some six weeks after the General Assembly session ends. That’s another reason why GOP lawmakers should consider passing sports betting in this session.

There are 12 candidates in the Republican primary, but probably no more than four or five who have viable shots of winning the nomination. However, there is no runoff provision in the primary, which means the winning candidate could finish with maybe 30% of the vote.

A survey last year found that 58% of Kentucky Republicans support sports betting. While that’s good news for supporters, that also means there’s enough opposition out there that could coalesce around a candidate who touts socially conservative stances on issues like gaming. That could help that candidate win the nomination.

I’ve covered Kentucky politics and government for more than 20 years, and I’ve seen how much of an impact the Family Foundation of Kentucky and its supporters can have on races in Kentucky.

In 2015, I was in Morehead, covering Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis and her refusal to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. There were large and vocal demonstrations both for and against her, and the day the clerk’s office finally began issuing licenses, I saw supporters of Davis take handfuls of voter registration cards. They said they planned to start registration drives, and it was one of the reasons why Bevin ended up winning the governor’s race that year.

Beshear is a popular governor. But as I mentioned earlier, there’s still a long time until the election, and whoever ends up as the Republican candidate will have a substantial campaign backing them up and trying to take some of the shine off the current governor.

And also remember that Beshear barely won despite facing an unpopular incumbent. His reelection is not a certainty. An anti-gaming candidate could still win in November, and if sports betting does not make it through the legislature this year, that will impact its chances of passing over the next four years.

Passing sports betting in this session gets the subject off the table and avoids that possibility.