Kentucky Gambling Boosted By Beshear Win In Governor Race

Kentucky Gambling Boosted By Beshear Win In Governor Race

Democrat Andy Beshear was elected governor of Kentucky Tuesday, putting a gambling ally atop the state’s executive branch ahead of the 2020 legislative session.

Beshear, currently the state’s attorney general, has supported not just sports betting but casino gambling in one of the few remaining jurisdictions without a brick-and-mortar casino. But challenges remain in the Republican-controlled legislature before any significant gambling legislation could come into law.

Incumbent Gov. Matt Bevin, a Republican, was seeking a second four-year term. With some votes still unaccounted for, Beshear won with around 49.2% of the vote to 48.8% for Bevin in what was projected to be one of the closest gubernatorial races in the country.

Assuming Bevin doesn't seek a recount and Beshear's win stands, it could help open the door for major gambling expansions in a way that would seem all-but-impossible if Bevin remained in office — if he can overcome a potentially recalcitrant legislature.

Gambling On The Campaign Trail

The two candidate took contrasting views on major campaign issues such as health care, teacher pay and the economy, but gambling took a surprisingly significant role leading into the election.

Beshear came out strongly in favor of new gambling avenues to help replenish the state’s underfunded pension program. He expressly supported sports betting authorization as well as new casinos. He pointed to lost revenue to neighboring states including West Virginia, Indiana and Illinois, all of which have casinos and have authorized legal sports betting.

Bevin countered with staunch opposition, saying the financial benefits weren’t worth what he deemed the adverse social costs from gambling. He said, without evidence, that there were suicides daily in Las Vegas casinos.

Though gaming wasn’t necessarily a top priority for most Kentucky voters, it served as a microcosm between the two candidates; a campaign to change the status quo against one to maintain the commonwealth’s current direction. On Tuesday, voters sided with the new trajectory.

Kentucky Gambling Background

Beshear’s win comes after some Kentucky lawmakers pushed for a new form of gambling in a state that has long resisted most types of gaming aside from horse racing.

All seven states that border Kentucky either passed legislation to approve sports betting or considered doing so. That compelled a bipartisan, bicameral group of lawmakers to push for legal sports betting as not just a means to generate revenue but to keep dollars from crossing state lines.

In 2019, sports betting backers could not get a bill through the legislature. Conservative and religious groups, most of which are against gambling, came out against the bill, which helped coalesce anti-gambling Republicans to work against the bill. With overwhelming GOP control in both chambers, Democrats and pro-gaming Republicans were not enough to gain consensus on a sports betting bill.

Heading into 2019, sports betting remains an easier goal than a brick-and-mortar casino. Though influential groups in the state, including the ownership group behind the iconic Churchill Downs racetrack, would likely support casino gaming and sportsbooks for its facilities, there is still little political appetite for brick-and-mortar gaming in Kentucky, despite the proliferation of those facilities across its northern borders.

What Comes Next

Sports betting, as well as more expansive gaming options, have a chance for legalization in Kentucky, possibly as early as 2020. Still, even under the Beshear administration, there are significant hurdles ahead.

The most likely outcome is some sort of sports betting bill, probably through either the state lottery and/or the horse racing industry. Beshear’s fellow Democrats are more than likely to get on board with sports betting, and there may be enough Republicans in the legislature, many of whom supported the bill earlier this year, to push the bill through into law.

Beshear’s push for casinos will likely be far more challenging. Even with a Democrat coming to the governor’s mansion, Republicans maintain their stranglehold on the General Assembly heading into 2020. GOP lawmakers have typically avoided any serious casino gaming discussions, and a Democrat atop the executive branch may actually help dissuade them from working out what would be a difficult compromise to overcome long-standing, entrenched opposition in Frankfort.

The biggest positive for gambling is Bevin’s departure from the governor’s office. Pretty much any substantial form of gambling would be discouraged under Bevin the next four years. Beshear’s election assures a gambling supporter will be in office to sign any such bills into law and, in a best-case scenario, shift enough lawmakers to change their perspectives on the industry.

Tuesday night did little to change Kentucky’s gambling prohibitions, but it could go a long way to drastic shifts in the next few years.

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