NEW YORK – A Republican-sponsored effort to clamp down on Internet gambling may turn out to be a bad bet for the GOP.
The Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act, which President Bush signed into law Oct. 13, has infuriated many voters who enjoy betting on sports or playing poker online, analysts said.
Other observers, however, see little threat to Republicans from the law, calling it a relatively minor matter to most voters.
"I don't believe a large volume of voters are motivated to go to the polls because of Internet gaming, either way," said Brian Darling of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank.
But with Republicans already on the defensive over the Iraq war, budget deficits and the congressional page scandal, the gambling law is the latest issue that could steer voters away from the GOP.
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"I've been a loyal Republican for over 30 years, and I'm quitting the party I once loved," said Jim Henry, 55, who lives outside San Francisco. "Not because of the Mark Foley scandal or Middle East policy. But because the Republican Party wants to stop me from what I love to do: play poker over the Internet."
Sponsored in the House by Reps. Jim Leach, R-Iowa, and Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., and backed in the Senate by Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., the law pits social conservatives who disapprove of gambling against the 8.5 million Americans who spend about $6 billion annually to cast wagers online.
Some opponents of the law see a political component to its passage, believing it was intended to buoy support for Frist among religious conservatives if he decides to run for president in 2008.
The law is aimed at stopping the flow of money to gambling sites, where funds could potentially be laundered.
Leach has also cited moral dimensions to the law, calling it one of the most important pieces of family legislation ever considered by lawmakers.
"Internet gambling is not a subject touched upon in the Old or New Testament or the Quran," Leach said earlier this year. "But the pastoral function is one of dealing with families in difficulty and religious leaders of all denominations and faiths are seeing gambling problems erode family values."
Even so, a Gallup Poll taken earlier this year found that 60 percent of adults believe gambling is morally acceptable. That's true for many religious conservatives who say they enjoy placing a bet.
"I've talked with Republicans all over the country, and they all understand that this is a theft of our liberty," said lifelong Republican Alan Sheldon, 61, of Loveland, Ohio, whose grandmother taught him how to play poker at the age of 4.
Sheldon, who describes himself as a conservative Christian, said he would not vote Republican next week because of the new gambling law.
"I suspect that people who actually do a lot of Internet gambling ... they're going to be turned off by this," said David Boaz of the libertarian Cato Institute in Washington. "That's going to hurt Republicans."
Boaz said the law would likely alienate self-described libertarian voters, which he estimates constitute about 13 percent of the electorate. Boaz published an analysis last month suggesting libertarians have been slowly shifting their support to Democrats since 2004.
Others say it's too much of a niche issue to swing the election.
"National security, the economy and such issues are likely to be the most pressing issues in voters' minds next Tuesday," said Carrie Meadows, a spokeswoman for Goodlatte.
The Poker Players Alliance, an advocacy group in Washington with more than 120,000 members, said it has been flooded with angry e-mails from libertarian organizations and Republicans disavowing the law. And the group is letting its members know how their representatives voted.
Alliance President Michael Bolcerek hopes they vote Tuesday and "share their outrage with Congress."