Damon Thayer’s comeback and the future of gaming in Kentucky
A couple weeks ago, multi-term Kentucky State Sen. Damon Thayer completed an unlikely turnaround of political fortunes when he was elected Majority Leader of the Kentucky Senate. It wasn’t even a year ago that the embattled Republican senator from Georgetown had been tossed aside by his caucus when then-Senate President David Williams effectively squashed Senate Bill 151, a bill giving Kentuckians the right to vote on expanded gaming. The subsequent fallout between Thayer and Williams put Thayer in political shackles for the rest of the 2012 session and beyond.
Thayer had greatly improved his image within the Thoroughbred industry at this point by spearheading the aforementioned SB 151. But ultimately, the effort, including an unlikely alliance between Thayer and Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear, fell flat. Sen. Williams exacted his revenge for the drubbing he took at the hands of Beshear’s reelection campaign by fast-tracking the bill. This truncated the time in which votes could be secured and placed the Senate vote on a day several proponents of the legislation could not be in attendance.
While Thayer was not locked in a closet the rest of the 2012 session, there was clearly a political price paid by the former Turfway Park and Breeders’ Cup executive for daring to work with Democrats for the good of the Commonwealth. With a political antagonist like David Williams working against him, praise from the opposition party is a political death penalty. Thayer’s influence within his caucus seemed to be at an all-time low.
But events have a way of unfolding in the favor of those willing to stay patient and stick to their guns. Thayer had consistently supported leaving expanded gaming up to the votes of the people since he joined the Senate in 2003, and he did not alter his position even after this latest defeat. Instead, he rightly focused on his reelection. Despite failings within his own caucus, Thayer proved himself to be ever popular in his district, resoundingly defeating his primary and general election opponents.
Meanwhile, David Williams experienced a series of setbacks towards the end of the 2012 session and throughout the rest of the year. The cantankerous relationship between Williams and Beshear finished the session on a nasty note leaving both politicians scarred but with Beshear clearly receiving the upper hand. Reports of Williams and his wife Robyn filing for divorce surfaced and in a statement regarding the divorce filing, the soon-to-be former Mrs. Williams delivered a serious blow by referring to her husband as “Senator Williams.”
It was a tough string of events for Williams, who less than a year ago had dreams of becoming the next governor of Kentucky. He now found himself with a deteriorating public persona and a second marriage that had fallen apart. At least with problems of this magnitude, the already surfaced scandals of former running mate Richie Farmer seemed trivial.
With Robyn (and her family money) out of the picture, Williams needed a new path. So when a judgeship opened up in his district, it was clear the Senate president who had fought so hard to keep his position since 1999 was now throwing his hat in the judicial ring. While nothing was made official, Frankfort’s worst-kept secret became Gov. Beshear’s desire to appoint his longtime rival as circuit judge for the 40th Judicial Circuit. While not Beshear’s only obstacle, Williams seemed destined for as long as he was Senate president to stand in the way of the governor’s desired expanded gaming legacy. The deal was done.
When caucus elections came around in late November of this year, there was little doubt that Republican Leader Sen. Robert Stivers would ascend to the Senate presidency. A state senator from Eastern Kentucky since 1997, Stivers comes from a socially conservative part of the Commonwealth and while likely not a proponent of expanded gaming, he is not considered a threat to block gaming legislation like his predecessor. It seems likely President Stivers understands how he came to be in his new position of authority and is politically astute enough to not bite the hand that feeds him.
The real contention was between Sen. Thayer and Sen. David Givens of Bowling Green. Battling for majority leadership in the Senate, our sources say the vote went to a third ballot before Thayer narrowly edged out the anti-gaming Givens. Those voting within the caucus must have understood the message this vote would send vis-a-vis the gaming issue.
The future for expanded gaming looks much brighter in the Bluegrass State than it did just six months ago. A governor motivated by cementing his legacy, a pro-gaming leader of the conservative caucus in the Senate, a non-obstructionist Senate president and public opinion continuing to move harder in the direction of gaming should make those who support this legislation feel more optimistic about their chances in 2013.
And for a senator who at this time last year was barely on speaking terms with the industry he supported for so long, Damon Thayer’s rise to power over the last 12 months bodes well for his political prospects in the coming years. This can only mean good things for Kentucky’s horse industry now and into the future.