Fantasy crackdown can fuel GOP dreams

Fantasy football
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Christmas has come early for the Republicans, and playing the role of Santa Claus is New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. Schneiderman is ordering daily fantasy sports sites DraftKings and FanDuel to stop accepting bets from New York residents, saying their games constituted illegal gambling under state law. By doing so, he's also providing voters a living and breathing example of statist overreach that will anger millions of Americans who enjoy playing fantasy sports. Those millions include swing voters and people who don't usually vote, but would be happy to change that habit if moved to genuine anger.

Of course, this can't make an impact on the 2016 election or any election unless at least one of the candidates makes a point of standing up for fantasy football fans, personal freedom, and less government. I don't see how Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders, or any Democrat for that matter, can possibly pull that off. Doing so would mean undercutting fellow Democrat Schneiderman, abandoning a decade's worth of calls for more, not less, regulation of just about everything, and succeeding in convincing the public that they really care about personal freedom connected to any issue other than abortion.

This issue is much more tailor made for the Republicans running for the White House. We got a glimpse of how much of a winner it can be during the CNBC GOP presidential debate last month when New Jersey Governor Chris Christie garnered a very loud and positive audience reaction when he mocked not just the question about regulating fantasy football, but also anyone in government who would seek to regulate it. Now someone has come along to not only regulate fantasy sports, but essentially shut it down. It's now not just an issue, but an issue that comes along with a name, face, and Democratic party affiliation to go with it.

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While I think seizing this issue would help each and every one of the Republicans still running for president, it would help some candidates more than others. Jeb Bush has already disqualified himself by saying at that same CNBC debate that he favored some forms of fantasy sports regulation. Christie seems too far behind in the polls to get more than a small bump from taking a pro-fantasy/pro-freedom stand. Besides, as the governor of a state so connected to gambling in the first place, supporting fantasy wagering won't do much to burnish an image that already isn't resonating that much with GOP voters. Donald Trump could score some points with a sharp edged quip or two about Schneiderman and the overreaching Democrats, but as a longtime proponent and investor in gambling he would also be going over some already-covered ground. Ben Carson could probably make a strong case for individual rights, but somehow fantasy sports doesn't seem to work with his overall moral message. The same is true for Governor Mike Huckabee.

The candidates this can help the most are Senator Marco Rubio and Carly Fiorina. Some of the reasons overlap and others do not. The overlapping reason is supporting fantasy sports freedom would do a lot to better humanize Rubio and Fiorina, making them look more like "regular folks." This is a great way for Rubio to reconnect to his blue collar roots and for Fiorina to appeal to the male voters who simply do not care that much about her CEO experience.

But for Rubio, supporting fantasy football betting sites could also help defuse a potential problem his campaign faces because of the heavy support it has received from casino magnate Sheldon Adelson. Rubio has fought efforts to expand online casino gambling games in the recent past, and critics accuse him of doing so at the bidding of the brick and mortar casino mogul. By insisting that fantasy sports sites are indeed more based on skill, he can support the popular pastime without flip flopping on his opposition to online blackjack, roulette, and poker. And he can also use his recent campaign ad showing him playing fantasy football as proof that he's no Johnny-come-lately to the issue.

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Speaking of fantasies, it's long been a fantasy for the Republican establishment to nominate a presidential candidate who really connects with voters with average incomes and average interests in blue collar swing states like Ohio and Pennsylvania. Ronald Reagan achieved that in spades. George W. Bush did it on a smaller scale, but still well enough to defeat the stiffer-image Al Gore and John Kerry. Mitt Romney in 2012 and George H.W. Bush in 1992 were stark examples of what the Republican Party risks when it nominates wealthy presidential candidates who appear elitist and removed from everyday America. Those everyday Americans are not going to be impressed with the know-it-all media types who are jumping all over Rubio now for his comment in last night's debate about how "welders make more money than philosophers." These elitist types are actually very happy with themselves for looking up the data that shows people who graduated college with degrees in undergraduate philosophy make a much higher wage. But they're missing the point that Rubio is making an attempt to connect with workers like welders, who outnumber philosophers many hundreds of times over in this country. The more those media types repeat the income statistics they're so proud of finding on Google, the closer Rubio comes to achieving that connection.

And supporting fantasy sports achieves the same thing. It's true that not every American is hooked on these websites. But many millions are, and their numbers cut across racial and economic lines in an extremely rare fashion for any issue in America today. There are many more important issues to be sure, but it's a lot harder to convince the voters that you have the answers for those much more complicated problems. Fantasy sports sites are a slam dunk winner for the GOP. Let's see which one of the GOP candidates figures that out first.

Commentary by Jake Novak, supervising producer of "Power Lunch." Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.