Betting On Red: Casino Execs, Workers Give $15 Million To GOP Candidates

Written By Steve Friess on October 27, 2022
Casino workers gave $15.5 million to GOP campaigns

From the executive suites to the slot floor, casino industry employees have given significantly more money directly to Republican candidates and organizations than to Democrats during the soon-to-end 2021-22 election cycle, according to a PlayUSA analysis of more than 100,000 federal campaign records.

Casino industry support sways right

Republicans running for Congress received more than $15.5 million in contributions versus about $2.6 million for Democrats, a nearly 8-to-1 advantage.

While that pro-GOP imbalance may be explained partly by particularly large contributions from wealthy executives who gave eye-popping sums to Republicans, Democrats also come up short when the analysis focuses on working-class industry employees from cocktail servers and janitors to cashiers and croupiers.

Even when focusing specifically on donors who indicate they hold those kinds of jobs, Republicans still received about $1.50 for every $1 given to Democrats.

Democrats did do better on one metric: the amount of money handed out by the political action committees, or PACs, operated by gambling corporations. Of the 10 most active, nine gave more to Democrats. In all, $293,100 in corporate PAC money went to Democrats versus $152,250 for Republicans, according to OpenSecrets.org, which aggregates and analyzes PAC spending.

Appeal of GOP to gambling workers

Casino workers shown to contribute more to GOP candidates

Experts offered a variety of explanations, including:

  • Casino workers were hard-hit by COVID-19 business closures imposed, often, by Democratic governors in states such as New York, Nevada, Michigan, New Jersey, Illinois and California;
  • Corporate PAC giving tends to favor incumbents, and Democrats have controlled both chambers of Congress since 2021;
  • Republicans have made in-roads in winning over the non-college-educated working class and Latino voters, and both demographics are prominent among gambling industry employees;
  • Many workers who want to support Democrats do so through their unions, either in cash contributions to the union’s political funds or by volunteering for campaigns.

This PlayUSA analysis solely considered money given to federal candidates. Millions more have gone to candidates running for state lawmaker and gubernatorial campaigns, especially given the efforts to persuade legislatures around the US to legalize sports betting and online gambling. Such an analysis can be nearly impossible at those levels because of inconsistencies in public reporting and different campaign finance reporting requirements from state to state.

The idea that casino workers who give campaign contributions might skew toward the political right this cycle does not surprise Occidental College Political Science Professor Isaac Hale, who studies the intersection of politics and the gambling industry.

Hale cautions against drawing overbroad conclusions based on the data because those who donate to campaigns represent a small, active fraction of voters. Most Americans who vote never give to political campaigns, so it’s impossible to extrapolate from donor records which direction an entire industry leans in the privacy of the voting booth, he said.

“It’s totally accurate to say the casino labor force is giving more money to Republicans than to Democrats. But that’s different from saying that the average casino worker is a Republican,” Hale said.

Personal and corporate politics often diverge

Even as the MGM Resorts PAC gave $61,500 to Democratic candidates versus $46,500 to Republicans this cycle, employees for the conglomerate gave more to Republicans.

That divergence goes a long way to explaining the difference between PACs and personal contributions. American Gaming Association (AGA) Government Relations Director Chris Cylke told PlayUSA that casino employees often don’t weigh whether “this person is going to be good for our industry or not going to be good for our industry” when deciding how to spend their money.

That, Cylke said, is the job of PACs, which support people in power who have shown an interest in the gambling industry’s interests. The AGA’s PAC gave $32,500 to Democrats and $21,500 to Republicans this year; in 2020, the same group gave $45,500 to Republicans and $19,000 to Democrats.

Hale said that makes sense because PACs often give to incumbents, and in 2020, the Republicans held the Senate and the White House.

Cylke said the issues that animate the industry in Washington are different than what might interest an individual voter. The gambling industry’s priorities include:

  • Keeping Congress from limiting or imposing its views on a matter that state governments should have dominion over. “We don’t need an extra layer of federal regulation,” he says.
  • Having a say on tax policies that impact employees as well as immigration policies that can impede or facilitate the hire of skilled labor from abroad. “If you’re about to open a brand new Japanese restaurant and you want to find a world-renowned sushi chef, chances are they’re going to be in Japan,” said former MGM Resorts Vice President Alan Feldman, now a distinguished fellow at the International Gaming Institute at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. “You’re going to want to bring them here, and you don’t have two years or four years to wait for the process to take its effect.”
  • Spurring federal law enforcement to crack down on illegal casino operations, notably online.

A Trump and COVID effect on casino workers?

Meanwhile, casino workers have other issues on their minds.

The political rise of former casino magnate Donald Trump may be having an impact on who rank-and-file casino workers give their contributions to, according to Paris Dennard, a GOP consultant who recently stepped down as the spokesperson for the Republican National Committee.

Casino workers collectively gave more than $121,000 to the Save America and Make America Great Again PACs, both specifically associated with the former president.

Trump’s connection to many workers was built on “a unique set of understanding because of his background in construction and, frankly, in casinos, and really dealing with and working beside and talking to regularly working class people in his hotels and his casinos and building his buildings and working in his building,” Dennard said.

What’s more, Dennard said, the industry was especially hard-hit by the COVID-19 pandemic:

“If you go back to COVID, the party that was advocating for workers, for keeping the doors open in a safe manner but still keeping the doors open, trying to get people back to work and getting people to go to work, that was the Republican Party. Republican candidates have positioned themselves to be on the side of workers and making sure they are able to provide for their families, especially during the two years of the COVID lockdowns.”

Executives, moguls mostly weigh in for the GOP

Top gaming executives contributions to GOP candidates

The average contribution for casino workers came to about $15, which certainly adds up. The overall scale is tipped decisively for Republicans by wealthy executives who gave vast sums. They include:

  • Miriam Adelson: The widow of Sheldon Adelson and the majority shareholder of Las Vegas Sands gave $10 million to the Congressional Leadership Fund, which funds Republican candidates for the US House, and another $5,000 for Stand For America, a PAC organized by Trump’s United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley. Last month, Adelson donated $1 million to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s re-election bid;
  • The Fertitta family: Red Rock Resorts CEO Frank J. Fertitta III, his brother, Lorenzo, and several direct relatives gave $2.45 million, all to conservative causes or GOP candidates;
  • Phil Ruffin: Owner of the Treasure Island Hotel-Casino in Las Vegas, along with his wife, gave more than $750,000, including a $500,000 donation to Make America Great Again Action Inc., Trump’s main PAC;
  • Joel R. Carter Sr.: Co-founder and president of Gulfside Casino Partnership, which owns the Island View Casino in Gulfport, Mississippi, and the planned River Valley Casino Resort in Russellville, Ark., gave more than $315,000. That includes $120,000 to the Trump-Graham Majority Fund, a collaboration of the former president and Republican South Carolina US Sen. Lindsay Graham.

Those numbers are particularly eye-popping when compared with what the biggest Democratic donors in the industry have given. Among them:

  • Jim Murren: The former CEO of MGM Resorts and his wife gave more than $87,000 to Democratic candidates;
  • Elaine Wynn: The ex-wife of former Wynn Resorts CEO Steve Wynn gave $38,795 to various Democratic candidates. (By contrast, Steve Wynn and his wife, Andrea, who have not been associated with the casino industry since 2018 when he divested from his company amid a sexual harassment scandal, gave $15.9 million to Republican groups.);
  • Jason Robins: A co-founder and CEO of DraftKings gave $32,100, including $10,600 to the PAC run by US Rep. Seth Moulton, whose Boston-area district neighbors Robins’ hometown of Weston.

One other industry figure stood out as a big spender, but a bipartisan one. That’s Stanton Dodge, the general counsel for DraftKings, who forked out $71,500 to Republicans and $67,600 to Democrats for a total of $134,100 in donations. Dodge’s contributions spanned a vast ideological gamut from hard-core progressives such as US Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon and US Rep. Eric Swalwell of California to fierce conservatives such as US Sen. Mike Lee of Utah and US Rep. Lauren Boebert of Colorado.

GOP and casino industry link reflects mainstreaming of gambling

Only a couple of decades ago, the casino industry was ignored by national Republican leaders who put it in the same category as other “vice” businesses. During the presidency of George W. Bush, however, Nevada US Sen. Harry Reid became the nation’s most powerful Democrat as the Senate Minority Leader and showed both sides of the aisle how much campaign cash was on offer in Las Vegas for politicians willing to take the industry and its concerns seriously.

By the end of the Aughts, as moguls such as Steve Wynn and Sheldon Adelson became major GOP donors, many Republicans embraced the right to gambling as a matter of personal freedom for adults. And with the spread of legal gambling in person and online in recent years, the days of the casino world being treated with disdain are over, experts said. After all, a former casino owner became a Republican president.

Thus, the idea that casino employees would be more likely to give to Republicans is also not as peculiar as it may seem to some, Feldman said.

“I would be surprised if [the GOP tilt] were more overwhelming” among rank-and-file workers, he said. “Who knows what the next cycle will look like or the cycle after that. It’s pretty obvious that in the last several years, the Republican base has become significantly more active. That might be reflected in the numbers you’re seeing.”

Dennard agreed and noted Reid’s retirement in 2017 and death last year also may have loosened the hold Democrats had on the industry.

“In this town, sometimes Democrats are in power, and it looks like Republicans are about to be in power, again,” he said. “When it comes to the purse strings, when it comes to priorities, when it comes to getting things done, you got to have the relationships, you got to have an opportunity to work with all of these people.”

infographic casino executive GOP campaign finance

About this story

This story was edited by Maria Healey, Kim Yuhl and Dustin Gouker. Jason Schaumburg planned the article’s promotion. The infographic was created by Jenn Montgomery.

Data on this page is from the Federal Election Commission (FEC) database. The FEC asks political donors to indicate the companies they work for and their jobs. While not everyone fills out all the requested information, most records do include the majority of it.

PlayUSA scraped the FEC site for all federal campaign records that referred to companies or entities that owned physical or virtual casinos or are known predominantly for making relevant equipment such as slot machines. From there, we sorted the occupations into non-managerial jobs and technical jobs versus jobs that involved oversight of others in some fashion. We also sorted based on whether the recipient was a GOP or Democratic candidate or organization. In all, more than 102,000 non-duplicate records fit the various categories we examined.

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Steve Friess

Steve Friess is the national gambling industry correspondent for PlayUSA and its related local sites. He is also a contributing writer for Newsweek. A Long Island native who earned a journalism degree at Northwestern University, Friess worked at newspapers in Rockford, Illinois, Las Vegas, and South Florida before launching a freelance career in Beijing, China, where he served as chief China correspondent for USA Today. After his return to the U.S. in 2003, he settled in Las Vegas, where he covered the gambling industry and the American Southwest regularly for The New York Times, Playboy, The New Republic, Time, Portfolio, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, New York magazine, and many others. During that time, he created and co-hosted two successful and groundbreaking podcasts, the celebrity-interview show The Strip and the animal affairs program The Petcast. In 2011-12, Friess was a Knight-Wallace Fellow for at the University of Michigan. That was followed by a stint as a senior writer covering the intersection of technology and politics at Politico in Washington, D.C., In 2013, he returned permanently to Ann Arbor, where he now lives with his husband, son, daughter and three Pomeranians. He tweets at @SteveFriess and can be reached at [email protected]

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