Sports betting in Georgia has become a minor issue in the Governor’s race heading into Tuesday’s election.
Stacey Abrams came out in favor of sports betting, detailing a plan that would legalize sports betting through legislation while supporting a constitutional amendment to allow casinos. In a campaign press release, Abrams said:
“Georgia must provide a pathway for students to secure higher education – especially those who are blocked from receiving this life-changing learning because they can’t afford it,” said Abrams. “I know firsthand how much of a difference access to higher education can make toward building future opportunity. Right now, Georgia is the only state in the south without need-based financial aid. My plan will change that while providing a permanent stream of revenue that can be used to provide critical financial aid and make technical college free, all without raising taxes and while we grow our economy.”
The press release goes on to say that “Georgia is currently one of only two states that doesn’t offer need-based financial aid for students.” Abrams’ proposal would be another example of a state using gambling revenue to fund education initiatives.
The political calculus is clear. Abrams is using this issue to undermine Governor Kemp’s claims that he’s a better candidate for the economy. Legalized gambling could increase tax revenue and generate additional revenue from gambling licenses without raising taxes on voters. However, Abrams is also being tarred for the economy President Biden is overseeing, even though Abrams’ last political position was a Georgia House of Representatives seat she resigned from in 2017.
Brian Kemp’s Political Calculus
Bloomberg reports that Governor Brain Kemp opposed sports betting legalization in 2018 and 2019, but his campaign hasn’t taken a position on the issue in the 2022 race.
Much of Kemp’s campaign has been an attempt to tie Abrams to national economic conditions.
However, Kemp’s non-position on sports betting in 2022 isn’t a new acceptance. When he voiced opposition to gambling expansion in 2019, he also said that he wouldn’t stand in the way of a constitutional amendment. This is in part because Georgia’s governor cannot veto a constitutional amendment. So, Governor Kemp has backed his way out from having to confront the issue directly.
Politically, it’s in Governor Kemp’s interest to avoid supporting gambling expansion head on. 61% of evangelicals in Georgia lean toward the Republican Party. This means that evangelicals and their conservative religious beliefs are important factors in a Georgia Republican’s political calculations.
Republicans aren’t completely beholden to their most conservative religious voters, though. There are many moderate and progressive religious voters across traditions. There are also conservative voters who don’t want to have to travel out of state to gamble, especially on something as popular and increasingly ubiquitous as sports betting.
Governor Kemp and other Republicans don’t have to lead moral crusades against sports betting, casinos, or gambling. They can paint themselves as sufficiently moral and conservative by not endorsing gambling expansion themselves and throwing the issue to lawmakers or the people of Georgia instead. It’s a tightrope that’s not unique to Georgia but is critical in understanding both candidates’ positions.
Politicizing Sports Betting Beyond Georgia
Georgia isn’t the first potential sports betting market to have support for gambling expansion fall on partisan lines. New York’s Democratic Governor supported Manhattan Casinos while the Republican candidate was non-committal, but raised zoning concerns.
In Texas, Democratic candidate Beto O’Rourke supports gambling legalization. Governor Greg Abbott’s position has softened. His press office released a statement saying he’d “take a look at [gambling legislation]” if it creates a “professional entertainment option” for Texans. But Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick remains opposed, taking the issue out of Governor Abbott’s hands.
Sports betting and gambling aren’t hot-button issues. Economic issues, abortion rights, and gun policy remain top issues. But this could become a bigger issue in certain races where moral concerns about gambling and beliefs linking gambling and crime are common among the electorate.
Sports betting in Georgia could be a prelude to gambling as a side issue for state and local races. It can be used to paint an opponent as immoral or fiscally irresponsible depending on how it’s spun. Even this tactic would be limited to elections where large swaths of the electorate can be moved by the moral issues attributed to gambling. It’s unlikely to spread far beyond the South or Deep South.