Edwards’s gambling stance expected to hurt his chances in Nevada caucus

Former Sen. John Edwards’s (D-N.C.) strong support of prohibiting gambling on college sports is expected to hamper his chances in the Nevada presidential caucus.

Lawmakers in the Silver State have long criticized the legislation; in 2003, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) called it “anti-Nevada.”

“If Edwards stays firm on that, it will hurt him,” said Eric Herzik, a political scientist at the University of Nevada in Reno.

Edwards was one of a handful of Senate Democrats who backed the bill championed by Sens. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.). But the negative effect the measure may have on Edwards is more acute than with his 2008 GOP counterparts because Democrats have moved Nevada’s race up in the nomination process, sandwiching it between Iowa and New Hampshire on Jan. 19.

Edwards, a formal cosponsor of the bill, didn’t hold back when lobbying for it. During a March 29, 2000 hearing of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, Edwards said, “Instead of rooting for a university because of loyalty, bookies in Nevada … root for a team for one reason, and only one reason: money.”

He later added, “We will hear today from folks in Nevada about how well-regulated the gaming industry is … We will not hear much, though, about the millions of dollars they give annually to politicians. You will not hear them talk about the influence their money has in Washington.”

Edwards said enactment of the bill would prevent Nevada casinos from “raking in close to a billion dollars annually on amateur athletics.”

Reid and other Nevada legislators testified that day in fervent opposition to the measure, saying it would create an economic burden on thousands of Nevadans. The senator, a former chief gaming regulator for the state of Nevada as well as an ex-chairman of the Nevada Gaming Commission, pointedly asked why the backers of the bill were targeting his state.

“It is easy because it is something you can pick at,” Reid said at the time, “and the NCAA, this has been fun for them because it diverts attention from their incompetence … Since 1994, Nevada, more than any other state in the union, has been targeted for federal initiatives that are anathema to the people of Nevada.”

Herzik said the rhetoric from lawmakers matches those shared by Nevada voters: “The issue of gambling is pretty well-settled in Nevada.” He added that most people in the state believe the industry is a well-regulated, legitimate source of income.

The other problem Edwards faces, Herzik said, is that he has heavily courted labor leaders in Nevada, who are closely tied to the gaming industry.

Kenneth Fernandez, a political scientist at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, predicted that Edwards would steer clear of his support of prohibiting gambling on college sports.

“He’ll downplay it,” Fernandez said, “and his challengers will play it up.”

However, Fernandez does not believe it will severely impact Edwards’s chances, noting that the gaming industry has higher sources of revenue than betting on college sports, such as slot machines.

Reid, meanwhile, has indicated he will not endorse a candidate before the general election. Rep. Shelley Berkley, who is the sole House Democrat from Nevada and represents Las Vegas, has not yet endorsed a White House hopeful in 2008.

Berkley backed Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) right before the Nevada caucus in 2004 while Reid stayed noncommittal. Kerry, who had all but locked up the nomination before the caucus, won 63 percent of the vote three years ago. Edwards finished third with 10 percent, behind former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and three points ahead of Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio).

Edwards, describing his backing of the plan years ago, noted that legendary coaches in North Carolina such as Dean Smith and Mike Krzyzewski endorsed it.

Proponents of the legislation have pointed out that the 49 other states have banned gambling on college sports and that in Nevada, bets cannot legally be placed on Nevada college games.

The issue of prohibiting gambling has eased somewhat in recent years. McCain has not touched the matter since 2003 and Brownback has not reintroduced his measure since 2000. The NCAA is no longer lobbying for the proposal.

But almost every nominee’s positions in the race for the White House are put under a magnifying glass.

And clearly, Nevada lawmakers have strong feelings about the measure. Reid has chastised Congress for seeking to “trash” the 10th Amendment, “whether it’s nuclear waste or morality-based anti-gambling initiatives.”

In 2002, Edwards voted in favor of storing nuclear waste in Nevada, but he now opposes it, as do the other Democratic contenders for president.

Other Democrats who backed the 2000 Brownback gambling bill included Sens. Joe Lieberman (Conn.), Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), Patrick Leahy (Vt.), Jack Reed (R.I.) and Dick Durbin (Ill.) — who is Reid’s deputy — as well as then-Sen. Charles Robb (Va.).

Edwards’s campaign did not return phone calls seeking comment.