How An Anti-Abortion, Anti-Weed Conservative Became A Leading Pro-Gambling Voice In Kentucky

Written By Steve Friess on April 27, 2023
Thayer Sees Kentucky Sports Betting As Personal Freedom

Kentucky state Sen. Damon Thayer was trying to maintain that Reaganesque, sunny disposition he usually presents in media interviews, but he was getting irritated and impatient.

My interest in talking to Thayer, the Republican majority floor leader who defied the odds and squeaked through a sport-betting legalization bill last month, was not to retread the details of that triumph. Many, many others have done that. The Bluegrass State hopes to allow NFL betting during the 2023-24 season.

No, I saw an important opportunity to ask someone who views gambling as a matter of individual liberty why he’s so opposed to recreational weed, legal abortion or marriage equality.

Here is what he told me of rationale for supporting sports betting:

“I’m Catholic, and I just believe God gives us free will. I didn’t ever see any place in the Ten Commandments that forbids gambling. Didn’t see it in the Seven Deadly Sins. I think God gives us free will to make decisions based on the information we have.
Making a sports bet is a decision folks make from free will. So I don’t have a philosophical opposition to it. … It squares pretty easily with my conservative, less-government philosophy. I’m a pro-business Republican. I’ve fought plenty of culture wars. I’m pro-life and pro-religious freedom, and I’m an A-plus-rated candidate by the NRA. But I also believe that businesses deserve an opportunity to thrive.”

Thayer and I never got to abortion and barely touched on gay rights. He was irked to even have to discuss pot. As the roadblock for years in Frankfort on any sort of marijuana legalization, he  surprised many this session by finally voting to legalize the plant’s medicinal use in a limited way.

“I didn’t know we were having a call about marijuana,” he harrumphed. “I thought we were talking about sports betting.”

To me, it’s all related.

Gambling and politics make strange bedfellows

Thayer and I are close in age but worlds apart politically and culturally. His reference point for his birthplace, Saginaw, Michigan, was “that old Johnny Cash song” of the same name, whereas I think of how it took Simon & Garfunkel “four days to hitchhike from Saginaw” in “America.”

He grew up in lily-white, overwhelmingly Christian, rural Michigan, I was raised Jewish in the New York suburbs. At a young age he took a liking to horse racing, which led to his life in Kentucky; I got turned off by the circus in the fourth grade because I could see how unpleasant it was for the poodles. I’m gay, he’s not. If he had his way, I imagine he probably would vote against my ability to have adopted my children with my husband.

Yet the gambling issue – and evidently only the sports-betting part of the gambling issue – puts us on the same side. It’s a special case to him, perhaps because it’s a pastime white men love and it bolsters their sense of masculinity the same way a general interest in sports does.

It took Thayer five years to push through sports betting since the 2018 Supreme Court decision that made its legalization a decision for each state legislature. In that time, five of the state’s neighbors legalized sports gambling, putting about a third of Kentucky’s counties on borders where state residents cross over to place their bets and pay their taxes elsewhere.

He finally prevailed because, he says, some anti-gambling state senators left and were replaced in last year’s election by supportive ones.

“There’s a lot of moral and religious opposition to all forms of gambling in Kentucky,” Thayer said.

Respecting the opposition’s opinions

Ah, so when he encountered that opposition, did Thayer answer them as he answered me? Did he cite the Ten Commandments and the Seven Deadly Sins and insist there’s no Biblical prohibition on the pastime?

“Yeah,” he answered, “but look, I don’t try to change the mind of people who are morally against things. I just can’t. I knew I knew there were some members on the fence. So, you know, I continued to talk about it with them in a respectful manner. I respected their opinions.”

Thayer is intriguingly disinterested in any proliferation of problem gambling or possible enticements to vulnerable young people:

“I’m not too worried about it. There are all sorts of legal vices in America, right? There are ways to deal with those who have addictions, and for the first time we are funding problem gambling in Kentucky. That’s the best we can do. It’s not my job to police everybody’s vices, you know? I have vices. I have too many carbs. I curse too much.”

OK, then what about marijuana? Isn’t that also just a vice?

After the aforementioned annoyance at the question, he replied:

“Marijuana is an illegal drug that has proven to have a hallucinogenic effect. It can be a slippery slope to more harmful and deadly drugs. My journey to voting for medical marijuana was not an easy one. I’m still not really thrilled about the vote, but I had to separate the pot smokers from the people who had afflictions, who told me time and time and time again that the only relief they could get from the pain was from medical marijuana. And so I came down on the side of compassion and trying to be sympathetic towards the pain that they feel. But if the pot smokers think I’m their guy to help them legalize weed so they don’t get cited or arrested by the police, I’m not their guy. I’m not going to get there.”

Those remarks fascinated me. They contradict how he shrugs off the potential for gambling addiction as not his problem. And Thayer, who owns a small-batch bourbon brand, makes money off another drug, alcohol, that causes far more societal mayhem.

Then again, Thayer has his limits on gambling, too.

Kentucky won’t go further on gambling, Thayer says

To get the sports betting bill through, Thayer had to toss legalization of online poker and daily fantasy sports. He didn’t mind; he said that in past years he had tried to get the sponsor of the bill to drop those “extraneous” elements. After the original sponsor lost his re-election bid, a new sponsor agreed with Thayer and narrowed the measure to sports betting.

That, Thayer says, is where the matter is going to stand for the foreseeable future.

“I’m not interested in dealing with any more gambling bills for a while. If casino companies are looking to Kentucky to expand because we now have sports betting, I’d urge them to look elsewhere. I’m not interested in it.”

How does that square with his views on free will and people taking personal responsibility for managing their vices? It doesn’t.

It does square, though, with political reality, as do the rest of the contradictions in Thayer’s views. He reflects the hypocrisies of the constituents who put him in office, and they bought an anti-abortion, anti-LGBTQ, anti-pot platform long ago. It’s about free will and personal liberty right up until it’s not.

Thayer is nothing if not a shrewd and highly successful political leader. Yeah, he would have supported the other gambling options, but his spidey sense told him they weren’t politically realistic.

Now, having won a landmark battle that few saw as likely this year, he’s probably thinking of a saying that’s probably so hackneyed in Kentucky: Never look a gift horse in the mouth.

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Steve Friess

Steve Friess is the national gambling industry correspondent for Playin USA and its related local sites. He is also a contributing writer for Newsweek. A Long Island native who earned a journalism degree at Northwestern University, Friess worked at newspapers in Rockford, Illinois, Las Vegas, and South Florida before launching a freelance career in Beijing, China, where he served as chief China correspondent for USA Today. After his return to the U.S. in 2003, he settled in Las Vegas, where he covered the gambling industry and the American Southwest regularly for The New York Times, Playboy, The New Republic, Time, Portfolio, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, New York magazine, and many others. During that time, he created and co-hosted two successful and groundbreaking podcasts, the celebrity-interview show The Strip and the animal affairs program The Petcast. In 2011-12, Friess was a Knight-Wallace Fellow for at the University of Michigan. That was followed by a stint as a senior writer covering the intersection of technology and politics at Politico in Washington, D.C., In 2013, he returned permanently to Ann Arbor, where he now lives with his husband, son, daughter and three Pomeranians. He tweets at @SteveFriess and can be reached at [email protected]

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