Legal and regulated sports betting starts Thursday in Kentucky and Gov. Andy Beshear will place the first wager. That’s not uncommon. Governors often place the first bet when their state launches sports wagering.
But what is uncommon is just how involved Beshear has been every step of the way as Kentucky prepares to launch sports betting.
Never before has a governor placed himself at the forefront of the sports betting regulatory process.
In doing so, Beshear is making being the governor who brought Kentucky sports betting a key part of his re-election campaign.
Beshear riding sports betting popularity to re-election
Beshear is up for re-election this November, when he will again be a Democrat running in a red state.
And it’s no coincidence that the Kentucky Democratic Party is asking voters to “Bet on Beshear.”
Beshear used his influence to ensure Kentucky retail sportsbooks at horse racing facilities opened for NFL betting. His name is at the top of every press release from the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission (KHRC).
Every big sports betting update from the KHRC, such as approved licensees or permissible wagers, comes with an email stating “Today, Gov. Andy Beshear announced …”
Beshear implanting himself into the Kentucky sports betting launch doesn’t sit well with some Republican legislators who see it as the governor taking credit for their work.
“He is hoping he can ride the sports betting wave to win in the suburbs,” Senate Majority Leader Damon Thayer told PlayUSA. “Despite the fact he had absolutely nothing to do with its passage.”
But Beshear didn’t just jump on the sports betting bandwagon to boost his re-election campaign. And although Republicans control the Kentucky legislature with a supermajority, the bill needed support from Democrats brought by Beshear to pass.
Kevin Borland, a Kentucky-based political and economic development consultant at the firm MulloyBorland, explained to PlayUSA:
“The governor wasn’t a Johnny-come-lately to this issue or a Monday-morning quarterback taking credit for it. I think people here see the legalization of sports betting as the governor working with support of the horse racing industry that has been so near and dear to the heart of Kentuckians to get through the legislature something that works for everyone and is beneficial to Kentucky.”
Beshear family history in supporting gambling expansion
Beshear is a long-time supporter of legalizing sports betting and expanding gambling in Kentucky, as was his father before him.
After Beshear was elected in 2019, then-Rep. Adam Koenig wrote an op-ed for the Lexington Herald-Leader on how his support of expanded gaming helped him get elected.
“I believe strongly that the distinguishing factor that resulted in the Beshear victory in our region was the issue of expanded gambling. All politics is local and that issue truly a big deal in the northern three counties.
In Beshear’s first State of the Commonwealth address, he surprised Koenig by singling him out and saying he supported the sports betting legislation he introduced.
Although the northern counties are heavily Republican, Koenig noted that they do have the highest percentage of registered independents in Kentucky. And Koenig pointed out that Beshear is not the only Democrat to carry the northern counties to become governor.
Steve Beshear pushed for expanded gambling as Kentucky governor from 2007 to 2015. It didn’t happen during his two terms, but his son took the baton to the finish line.
“Our region helped deliver the governor’s office to his father, also a supporter of expanded gambling,” Koenig wrote. “This is not a coincidence.”
Sports betting and the Kentucky gubernatorial election
Sports betting’s popularity with independents and swing voters could be key for Beshear in the coming election.
Beshear’s opponent in 2019, then-Gov. Matt Bevin, was against expanding gambling. The issue even became a key part of one of their debates.
This time around, Beshear is facing Republican challenger Daniel Cameron, the state’s current attorney general (Beshear was attorney general prior to becoming governor).
Putting his name on the Kentucky sports betting launch could again help Beshear land swing voters in northern Kentucky.
Despite Kentucky being as Republican as ever, Borland said he thinks Beshear has maintained the heart of many residents and leads the race. The governor’s support of sports betting plays a part in that support.
“The governor hails from western Kentucky and does well there, and he does well in the Louisville and Lexington areas, where I think his support of sports betting can only help that,” Borland said. “If he can pull more votes from northern Kentucky where perhaps people were tired of seeing sports betting revenues leave the state to Ohio, that can be a significant piece of the puzzle.”
Cameron said during the campaign that he supported regulating sports betting in Kentucky. But supporting sports betting from the outside is one thing. Beshear is making sure everyone knows he’s the governor who made it happen.