Democrat Cunningham Calls Sports Betting A Freedom Issue In South Carolina Governor Run

Written By Brant James on February 25, 2022 - Last Updated on June 15, 2022
Joe Cunningham Runner For South Carolina Governor Hopes To Legalize Sports Betting

Joe Cunningham doesn’t bet on sports, but he knows that people do. The South Carolina Democrat knows those folks aren’t all that unusual, even in a state with some of the most rigid gambling laws in the United States.

So, as the former member of the US House of Representatives attempts a difficult run for governor, Cunningham has foisted the legalization of sports betting as not only a source of revenue but a freedom issue in a state, he says, that stagnates under Gov. Henry McMaster.

“I think [the sports betting plan is] already being very well received and in a day and age where it’s so hard for Democrats and Republicans to find anything to agree on – you can’t even get them to agree on what day it is – the fact that this has support on both sides of the aisle is refreshing,” Cunningham said in a video interview with PlayUSA.

“This comes down to personal liberty and personal freedom. And if somebody wants to throw down $20 on a football game, who is the government of South Carolina to say otherwise and prevent them from doing that? I mean, we’re coming off the Super Bowl where a ton of money was wagered. And all the money in South Carolina that was wagered was done under the tables and was done illegally. We’re just talking about bringing that out of the shadows and regulating it and taxing it and start to tackle some of the problems we have in our state.”

Cunningham won the South Carolina Democratic primary on June 14 with 56.5% of the vote.

South Carolina is ever an anomaly as sports betting permeates the South

South Carolina, whose only major form of legal gambling is a state lottery, is bordered by two states where sports betting is legal and underway.

North Carolina sanctioned the Eastern Band of Cherokees to offer retail sports betting in two casinos in the western reaches of the state in 2019 and continues to labor through the process of legalizing it via mobile and online state-wide. Mobile sports betting in Tennessee launched in 2020.

A late push in the 2021 legislative session provided momentum and encouragement among industry analysts that broad gambling expansion in Georgia is possible this year.

It’s not that South Carolina legislators haven’t tried in the past. But yet again, bills to expand gambling in South Carolina died in committee last year.

In the 2022 session, Rep. William Herbkersman (R-Beaufort) filed HB 5277, which would legalize online sports betting in South Carolina.

Cunningham, like many politicians hoping to spur sports betting legalization, cites the outflow of local dollars to other states and illicit markets but also sees it as a symptom of a state failing to evolve.

On sports betting and policy in general, Cunningham said, there’s “a lot of work to do” in South Carolina. The state, he noted, is one of two with Wyoming that has not passed a hate crimes bill.

“We haven’t expanded Medicaid in South Carolina. We haven’t legalized even medical marijuana,” he said. “That’s an issue that 90% of the people agree on. Again, this goes back to having leadership and having the same old vision in charge of our state government. It’s not a reflection of who we are as South Carolinians or where we want to take our state because we’re running a campaign of new ideas. And we’re comparing that to the current governor that has no ideas. And that’s just a simple contrast for voters to digest.”

In 2017, a Winthrop poll conducted on behalf of The State reported:

  • 54% of South Carolina respondents favored legalizing a limited number of casinos.
  • That figure jumped to 68% if the revenue was used to fix South Carolina’s notoriously horrendous roads.

A similar poll in 2014 that did not use the caveat of road repair found that 47.3% of respondents favored limited casino expansion.

RELATED: US Gambling Revenue By State

Cunningham is a longshot in a state where voters often bet on red

Winning the nomination is just the start. Six of South Carolina’s seven US Congressmen and both Senators are Republicans. The state hasn’t elected a Democrat as governor since one-termer Jim Hodges in 1998.

McMaster became governor in 2017 when predecessor Nikki Haley resigned to become the United States ambassador to the United Nations in the Trump Administration. He won re-election in 2018.

Cunningham,39, and McMaster are far apart on many planks, as expected. There appears to be no middle ground for the 74-year-old Republican to moderate on sports betting after saying in 2018 that gambling “flies in the face of everything South Carolina stands for.”

“We live in a state where we fire our football coaches if they have just one losing season and McMaster has been in politics for 40 years, and you pull up our state’s record, we’re last in roads, last schools, last in healthcare,” Cunningham said. “And now he’s come to the voters asking for another four-year extension onto his contract, to do what he hasn’t been able to do in 40 years. It doesn’t make sense. And I think voters are picking up on that and realizing that.

“This is an issue that has strong bipartisan support, and that has traditionally been done, quite frankly, from states that are red, with more Republicans. When you find an issue that can gain traction in bi-partisan fashion, I think you’ve got to build on it.”

Watch the rest of PlayUSA’s interview with Joe Cunningham

The interview is also available in an audio podcast.

Listen to “South Carolina, Sports Betting, and Joe Cunningham | HeyUSA! Interview” on Spreaker.

Photo by Meg Kinnard / The Associated Press
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Brant James

Brant James is a veteran journalist who has twice been recognized in the Associated Press Sports Editors Awards, most recently in 2020. He's covered motorsports, the National Hockey League and Major League Baseball among a myriad of others beats and written enterprise and sports business for publications including USA TODAY,,

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