Gambling Legalization Playing Out in Phelan-Covey Runoff

Written By Phil West on May 22, 2024
Dade Phelan, Texas House Speaker, is in a tight runoff election on May 28.

On its face, the May 28 runoff between Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan and challenger David Covey appears to be a classic case of a Republican incumbent being challenged by a candidate running to his right.

But the vote to determine who will represent the heavily Republican District 21 is doubling as a referendum on Phelan and his role in the House passing sports betting and casino legislation in 2023.

Several key anti-gambling conservatives are backing Covey, while a pro-casino PAC has given a significant donation to Phelan’s campaign.

Expansion of gambling at issue in race

Texas sports betting and commercial casinos remain illegal in the Lone Star State. Bills that would legalize both passed the House in the last legislative session but gained no traction in the Senate. The Texas Legislature meets on Jan. 1 in every odd-numbered year.

Phelan’s campaign received $200,000 from the pro-gaming Texas Sands PAC. It was the largest single donation from the $2 million the political action committee distributed to Texas candidates. Phelan was instrumental in passing the sports betting bill and has supported destination resort casinos.

As well, Jasper Scherer, Texas Tribune political reporter, posted a tweet citing another major donor to Phelan’s campaign. The Texas Defense PAC, entirely funded by Miriam Adelson, was created in April and has funded Phelan.

The Texas Tribune further reported that Covey has been endorsed by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller and former President Donald Trump.

Covey supporters accuse Phelan of helping Democrats

In the primary, Covey received about 1,000 more votes than Phelan, by a 46.3% to 43% margin. Neither candidate got above 50%, forcing the runoff, thanks to the presence of a third candidate, Alicia Davis, who collected about 10% of the vote.

Covey, a 34-year-old oil and gas consultant and former policy adviser to a far-right state senator, told the Houston Chronicle that Phelan has done a poor job.

“Dade Phelan has failed to represent our party and our community. I will be Southeast Texas’ representative in Austin, not Austin’s representative in Southeast Texas.”

The article goes on to note that critics of Phelan see him as “the face of the ‘establishment’ that has ceded too much power to Democrats in Austin and has unfairly targeted Paxton, the embattled attorney general whom many Republicans praise for battling the Biden administration.”

Phalen told the Tribune that he stands on his record.

“This runoff is not just another race, it’s the frontline of the battle for the soul of our district. While my opponent hides behind empty rhetoric, dishonest advertising and surrogate voices, I stand before voters with a clear record of service and conservative success.”

How impeachment is impacting the race

Phelan and Paxton clashed last summer over the House impeaching the AG for using his influence to protect a developer who was later indicted on federal charges. The majority of Republican House members voted for the impeachment.

The Senate, however, acquitted Paxton in September. That increased the rancor between Phelan and Patrick, who oversees the Senate. According to CNN, “Paxton accused Phelan of being drunk while presiding over a late-night House session” earlier that year, which Phelan denied. Patrick accused Phelan and his House colleagues of “ramm[ing] through” the impeachment.

After the acquittal, Phelan told CNN:

“To be clear, Patrick attacked the House for standing up against corruption. His tirade disrespects the constitutional impeachment process afforded to us by the founders of this great state. The inescapable conclusion is that today’s outcome appears to have been orchestrated from the start, cheating the people of Texas of justice.”

The Tribune notes Phelan defended his impeachment-leading actions in an ad campaign leading up to the March primary.

How has Phelan represented district 21?

District 21 contains the more Republican-leaning sections of the Golden Triangle, the East Texas region along I-10 that includes Beaumont, Port Arthur, and Orange. While Democratic-represented District 22 contains Beaumont and Port Arthur, the district Phelan and Covey are contesting includes the city of Orange.

Orange is the last city Texas travelers travel through before crossing into Louisiana. For many of them, it’s along their journey to casinos like Coushatta in Kinder, Delta Downs in Vinton, or an assortment of Lake Charles casinos, including L’Auberge and Golden Nugget.

According to a Spectrum News story, some Phelan opponents are upset that he did not support a school voucher bill that Gov. Greg Abbott backed. The bill would have allowed taxpayer dollars to fund private school tuition.

In the same article, Joe Evans, chair of the Jefferson County Republican Party, supported Phelan’s leadership.

“Because we have Speaker Phelan at the helm of things, we’re at the forefront when it comes to funding for highways, when it comes to funding for public ed.”

In a Houston Public Media article, Orange County Commissioner for Precinct 4 Robert Viator lauded Phelan for his response to Hurricane Harvey hitting his county in August 2017.

“The only elected official, including our county representatives at the time, that contacted me every day to see if there was anything we needed, check on us was Dade Phelan. His knowledge and his expertise in getting resources during a disaster is phenomenal, and I don’t know how we would have survived without him.”

That article also notes that a sitting House speaker hasn’t lost a primary election since 1972. The primary winner will likely take the seat. Phelan didn’t face a Democratic challenger in the 2022 general election.

Photo by Eric Gray / AP Images
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Phil West

Phil West is a longtime journalist based in Austin, Texas, whose bylines have appeared in The Daily Dot, Nautilus, Pro Soccer USA, Howler, Los Angeles Times, Seattle Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, San Antonio Express-News, Austin American-Statesman, and Austin Chronicle. He has also written two books about soccer.

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