Two Adelson-Backed Texas House Candidates, Including Speaker Phelan, Win Runoff Elections

Written By Phil West on May 29, 2024 - Last Updated on May 30, 2024
Texas state legislature where two pro-casino lawmakers won close run off elections.

Dade Phelan and John McQueeney, two candidates receiving money from PACs funded by Las Vegas Sands Corp. owner Miriam Adelson, won runoff bids on Tuesday night. Both of their conservative challengers nearly won their initial primaries in March.

Phelan, overseeing a Texas House that passed a sports betting bill in the most recent 2023 session, held off challenger David Covey by a mere 366 votes, despite emerging as what the Texas Tribune labeled “the top electoral target for a far-right faction of Republicans intent on controlling the Legislature.”

Phelan carried to victory by high-profile state republicans

In a splintering Republican party where opponents label Phelan a RINO (Republican In Name Only), this victory indicates that voters still prefer Phelan’s moderate politics, including his support of Texas sports betting. If only by a small margin.

The Texas Tribune noted,

“The more business-oriented establishment wing of the party viewed Phelan’s campaign as a last stand to maintain influence — and civility — in the Legislature. That group, led by some of the state’s wealthiest business executives, political strategists like Karl Rove and erstwhile Republican elected officials including U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and Gov. Rick Perry, poured millions of dollars into Phelan’s campaign. Phelan’s win was a victory for them, too. That well-heeled group of powerbrokers, who swept Texas Republicans into power in the 1990s, cracking a century of Democratic dominance, showed that despite recent attacks on their own reputations as RINOs, they still have sway within the state party.”

But Adelson’s support also helped. Phelan’s campaign received $200,000 from the pro-gaming Texas Sands PAC—the largest single donation from the $2 million the political action committee distributed to Texas candidates.

Phelan played an instrumental role in passing a sports betting bill through the Texas House in 2023, and he has voiced support for destination resort casinos. meaning that while both goals remain uphill climbs when the Legislature reconvenes next January, the chances are certainly better than if a more conservative Speaker aligned with anti-gambling conservative Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who oversees the Senate, were installed to replace the Beaumont Republican.

In the District 21 primary, Covey received about 1,000 more votes than Phelan, by a 46.3% to 43% margin, but couldn’t get over the 50% line thanks to the presence of a third candidate.

McQueeney, pro-casino advocate, squeaks by in House District 97

A similar dynamic bore out in the Fort Worth suburbs, where an Adelson-backed candidate supporting destination resort casinos, John McQueeney, edged fellow conservative Cheryl Bean by just 300 votes. In the March primary, Bean nearly won outright, but McQueeney emerged triumphant in District 97 on Tuesday night in an incredibly close runoff race.

Fort Worth Star-Telegram columnist Bud Kennedy attributed much of McQueeney’s victory to Gov. Greg Abbott’s backing but also noted that Adelson’s money helped the cause:

“McQueeney banked a late $1.9 million in campaign money, $1.3 million of it from casino executive and Dallas Mavericks owner Dr. Miriam Adelson and the rest from Gov. Greg Abbott and a Texas police PAC. That sealed his victory over Bean, a construction executive and charter school board member backed by Attorney General Ken Paxton and the party’s church-MAGA clique. Back in March, Bean fell only 77 votes short of winning without a runoff. But since then, McQueeney had picked up endorsements and money from Abbott plus the backing of former Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price in her home House district.”

Recent interviews with both candidates revealed that while they were aligned on many conservative issues, including a school voucher proposal Abbott is championing, they were divided on the casino issue. While Bean found it pointless to ponder gambling bills in the House while Patrick is overseeing the Senate, expressing concerns that casinos would bring unions and “jobs that illegals coming across the border can do,” McQueeney saw the value in a limited number of destination resort casinos.

He went on record to say, “If we want to get real about property tax relief, we need to get real about revenue generation,” indicating that casinos with hotel and entertainment spaces could deliver on that need.

McQueeney, running in a heavily Republican district, will face Democrat Carlos Walker in November’s general election. Phelan, meanwhile, does not have a challenger on the Democratic side of the aisle in District 21.

Photo by Eric Gay / 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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