Guess Who's Raking It In From Gambling

As casinos throw money at the GOP, the Religious Right fumes

When Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and other powerful lawmakers bundled into a casino owner's private jet and headed toward Las Vegas last November, it wasn't for a weekend of slots and showgirls. The Republicans were guests of honor at a gambling industry fund-raiser. With a take of nearly $700,000, the event made gambling interests the second-largest business contributor to the Senate Republicans' political committee in 1997-98, following the insurance industry.

But not everyone in the party is wild about the GOP's winnings. Religious conservatives view the gambling industry's political clout with a combination of loathing and alarm. "I think it's a bad idea for party leaders to be running out to Las Vegas and holding fund-raisers in casinos," says Gary Bauer, President of the Family Research Council and a Presidential aspirant. "It's like sticking their finger in the eyes of a whole lot of people around the country that they depend on every November."

No issue more lucidly points up the division within the Republican Party between business interests and social conservatives. Does the GOP side with a booming industry--one that has pumped more than $2.3 million into GOP coffers for the '98 elections? Or do GOP leaders heed the antigambling demands of their most reliable supporters and their leading source of grassroots volunteers?

TOUGH TALK. The moralists are turning up the heat on national Republican leaders. Representative Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), a leading foe of the gaming business, is calling on his party to forswear gambling dollars. And social conservatives vow to make gambling an issue in the 2000 GOP Presidential primaries. Senator John D. Ashcroft (R-Mo.), a potential Presidential candidate closely aligned with Christian conservatives, condemned gambling as immoral in a speech to Southern Republican activists in March at a casino complex in Biloxi, Miss. Texas Governor George W. Bush, the Presidential frontrunner, also is an outspoken foe. Says Ralph E. Reed Jr., a former executive director of the Christian Coalition who is informally advising some White House hopefuls: "Any Presidential candidate who receives casino support is going to come under heavy fire."

That kind of talk has the gaming industry running scared. Fearful of new federal regulations, or "sin" taxes, it's doling out soft-money donations like free meal chits. While the industry historically has generously donated to both parties, the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics found that 66% of its largesse in 1997-98 has gone to the Republicans who control Congress. Among the biggest winners this election cycle: the National Republican Senatorial Committee ($717,500) and the Republican National Committee ($674,150), according to the CRP. And more donations are expected at another Las Vegas fund-raiser for House Republicans scheduled for Oct. 14.

To guard its flank in Washington, the industry hired former Republican National Committee Chairman Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr. to head its trade group, the American Gaming Assn. And on Capitol Hill, it has invested more than $3 million in the past two years in a bipartisan team of well-connected lobbyists. Prominent Republicans include Kenneth M. Duberstein, former Reagan White House chief of staff, and Daniel P. Meyer, former chief of staff for House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Casinos fear that gambling could be the next vice targeted by lawmakers, as tobacco was this year. They're also nervous about the recommendations of a blue-ribbon congressional commission on gambling, slated to issue its report in mid-1999. "If we don't participate in the process, we'll get run over by it," reasons one industry executive.

That hasn't happened yet. Indeed, the gaming biz has rung up a string of legislative victories this year. Notably, it buried a bill to rescind the tax-deductibility of gaming losses. But its winning streak has led moralists to raise the level of their rhetoric. Says Bauer: "Look what [gambling] does to families, the role of organized crime....I think the American people would respect a party that said, `We're not going to take that money."'

Gambling lobbyists say they'll resist any efforts by religious conservatives to blunt their political clout. "Their ultimate goal is to outlaw legal gaming in the country," says Fahrenkopf. Republican pols in the middle of the debate are sure to agonize over the issue--all the way to the bank.

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