The Texas runoff elections were not kind to out-of-state gambling interests hoping to turn Texas into a pockmarked fluorescent wasteland.

This result suggests that cash alone won’t be enough to overcome sound opposition to expanded gambling and, more broadly, that protecting lawmakers willing to compromise on a range of conservative issues is difficult.

Before the 2023 legislative session, the Las Vegas Sands casino group set up a lobbying blitz to advance the establishment of a handful of casinos around the state, employing more than 100 lobbyists to force a measure through the process. The gambit to set up a protected monopoly worked in the Texas House for legalizing sports betting, but ultimately failed for casinos. The legislation to legalize sports betting later died in the Texas Senate.  

In addition to hiring an army of lobbyists, the Sands corporation established a front group to advance its issue, the Texas Destination Resort Alliance. Some Texans have been receiving text messages and other advertisements from this outfit, trying to overcome casinos’ numerous societal ills and economic costs.

Sands hoped to build on their limited success during the session by protecting the handful of Republicans who sided with Democrats to advance the House measure in their primary elections. The efforts to protect incumbents could be called an abysmal failure.

Fourteen Republican members who voted for the Sands-backed legislation lost their elections or retired. That’s more than fifty percent of the challenged members. Twelve survived primary challenges with varied levels of success.

Between Sands and Defense PAC (another arm funded by casino magnate Miriam Adelson), $2.46 million was spent supporting the campaigns of incumbents who lost and $2.02 million successfully defending lawmakers who sided with Sands on casinos.

Sands’s giving ahead of the primary election was big but not particularly grandiose with the average gift size of $62,184. However, the average giving per race jumped by $446,000 on average in the runoff. That spending was largely in vain, with three of four incumbents falling to challengers.

Ahead of the runoff election, Texas Scorecard surveyed incumbents and challengers bound for extra-inning runoff elections on gambling.

Of those who responded, two of the races’ positions on gambling could not be determined. In the remaining ten contests, Sands won just three races where the candidate was pro-casinos or previously voted for the one of the gambling expansion measures last year. In that voted for category, there was just one member, State Rep. Gary VanDeaver (R-New Boston), who, ironically, the PAC did not give money to ahead of the runoff election.

The most striking defeat was dealt to State Rep. John Keumpel (R-Seguin), a lawmaker correctly viewed as a critical figure in the House’s efforts to expand gambling. John’s father, deceased former Representative Edmund Keumpel, was well known for teaming up with Democrats under the Speakership of Joe Straus to expand gambling.

The only high-profile incumbent protection race Sands won in the runoff was House Speaker Dade Phelan’s. That win was a pyrrhic victory in every sense of the term as a 400-vote victory margin is not confidence-inspiring.

Sands is expected to continue spending big, and its propaganda campaign to set up shop in Texas is ongoing. Now, it remains to be seen if lawmakers will take a step back from governing to benefit big-money special interests and focus on the issues that voters elected them to address.

Daniel Greer

Daniel Greer is the Director of Innovation for Texas Scorecard.