The (Not So Partisan) Politics Behind South Carolina’s Chance at Legal Sports Betting

South Carolina gubernatorial candidate Joe Cunningham supports legalized sports betting (AP Photo/Meg Kinnard)

Legal sports betting in South Carolina could come down to the winner of the state’s 2022 governor’s race.

But that doesn’t mean sports betting is a strictly partisan issue. 

Take a mobile sports betting bill (H5277) now pending in committee during South Carolina’s 2022 regular legislative session. Republican State Representative Bill Herbkersman is the lead sponsor of the proposal. The bill’s cosponsor is House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, a Democrat.

That said, the bill is going nowhere fast. With two weeks left in the current legislative session, the proposal has already been labeled dead.” Even if it does pass the legislature, the proposal would have to get by Republican Gov Henry McMaster.  The governor has not been a fan of legalization in the past – despite passage of legal sports betting by Republican-majority legislatures in other states. 

McMaster could be in office another four years. On Tuesday, the state’s Republican party elected him their nominee in the 2022 governor’s race. He will be running against Democrat nominee and former South Carolina congressman Joe Cunningham. 

Cunningham has made his support for legal sports betting a selling point in his race for governor. McMaster has not. So, what does that mean for the Palmetto State? 

Is Cunningham the Best Shot for Legal Sportsbooks in South Carolina?

Joe Cunningham is a native Kentuckian who moved to South Carolina after law school to practice construction law. He represented South Carolina in Congress from 2019-2021, then started his campaign for governor – with legal sports betting part of his platform. 

The former congressman says on his campaign website that South Carolina could generate at least $40 million in state revenue annually by legalizing mobile and retail sportsbooks. By not supporting legalization, McMaster is hurting the economy, said Cunningham.

“What’s free-market about big government telling you that you can’t bet $20 on the Super Bowl on your phone? What’s free-market about letting North Carolina and Tennessee capture millions of dollars in tax revenue from South Carolina residents?” said Cunningham. “It’s time for (the governor) to get on board or get out of the way.” 

McMaster’s Stance on Sports Betting

McMaster has been unenthusiastic about legal sports betting in the state, saying “it doesn’t line up with the values of the state,” according to a WACH-TV article in February 2021. The governor has been part of South Carolina politics for decades, even serving for a time under Sen. Strom Thurmond. 

McMaster has the upper hand. South Carolina is considered “solid Republican” by pol-watcher sites like The Cook Political Report. That makes McMaster the favorite to win. 

Whether opposition to legal sports betting in South Carolina is a winning strategy going forward, however, remains to be seen. 

What Happens Next?

Sports betting is far from a wedge issue. Both Republican and Democrat states nationally have legalized sportsbooks in recent years, largely with bipartisan support. Arizona, Ohio, Kansas, and Louisiana are among the Republican-majority state legislatures that have legalized sports betting in the past two years. 

What makes South Carolina unique in the sports betting arena likely comes down to the phrase “all politics is local,” at least when it comes to statewide elections. The Palmetto State has historically taken its time on deciding gambling issues at the statewide level. 

The last major vote on gambling in South Carolina was referendum approval of a state lottery in 2000, followed by state legislative approval in 2001.

Some say a constitutional amendment would be required for approval of sports betting, according to past news reports, but that’s debatable. Rep. Herbkersman’s and Rep. Rutherford’s bill only proposes changes to state law. 

That said, the bellwether of what happens with legal sports betting in South Carolina anytime soon could be what happens at the polls on Nov. 8.

About the Author
Rebecca Hanchett

Rebecca Hanchett

Legislative Writer
Based in Kentucky's Bluegrass region, Rebecca Hanchett is a political writer who covers legislative developments at Gaming Today. She worked as a public affairs specialist for 23 years at the Kentucky State Capitol. A University of Kentucky grad, Hanchett has been known to watch UK. basketball from time to time.

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