During a press conference in Dallas on Wednesday, Texas gubernatorial candidate Robert “Beto” O’Rourke voiced his support for legalizing casino gambling and sports betting in the Lone Star State.
“From listening to Texans across the state, it’s one, a very popular proposal, and two, it would also help us address some of the challenges we have in reducing inflation and property taxes in the state,” the former Democratic congressman from El Paso said, according to the Houston Chronicle. “So I think that warrants a very close look and it’s something I’m inclined to support.”
While O’Rourke, who’s running an underdog campaign against incumbent Greg Abbott, is certainly not the first gubernatorial candidate to back the legalization of sports betting, his support can only help the cause of pro-wagering advocates looking to legitimize the practice in America’s second-most populous state. Abbott accepted significant campaign contributions from the late Las Vegas Sands CEO Sheldon Adelson and has reportedly warmed to the notion of legalized gambling in the state, but most of his fellow Texas Republicans — including Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick — remain adamantly opposed.
Joe Cunningham, who’s running for governor in South Carolina, and Eric Lessner, who’s running for lieutenant governor in Massachusetts, stand in solidarity with O’Rourke among Democratic candidates seeking top-of-the-ticket offices in states where sports betting is not yet legal. But a governor’s support hardly ensures that sports betting will become legal, as was proven by Kentucky’s recent failure to pass sports wagering legislation despite the strong backing of Gov. Andy Beshear.
Austin typically hostile to legalization
O’Rourke’s political career has been on something of a downward trajectory since he captured his party’s imagination in coming tantalizingly close to unseating U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz in 2018. A run for the presidency in 2020 fell notoriously flat, and he’s at least as big an underdog to topple Abbott — in what’s expected to be a challenging election cycle for Democrats — in November as he was when he took on Cruz four years ago.
Should he pull off the upset, however, he’ll face a legislative landscape that’s traditionally been hostile to legalizing gambling, with evangelical conservatives still holding considerable sway at the statehouse in Austin.
“The religious right does a very good job of winning Republican primaries in Texas,” R.G. Ratcliffe, a longtime political writer in the state, told Sports Handle back in December. (When contacted for the same article, O’Rourke’s campaign declined to share its stance.) “A lot of people who have an interest in expanding gambling in Texas are also big-money donors to statewide politicians. But it didn’t happen when Joe Straus was speaker [of the House] and his family had a longtime role in horse racing. So it’s hard to see anything happening on that front, short of a paradigm shift in the political atmosphere. I don’t see it happening until probably about 2030.”
It remains to be proven whether Ratcliffe’s pessimism is warranted, but the next chance Texas, where the legislature meets just every other year, will have to pass sports betting legislation is in 2023.