Slam Dunk

Shaquille O’Neal Endorses Chris Christie

The NBA superstar is endorsing New Jersey's Republican governor—and so are many other African Americans. John Avlon on what Christie can teach the GOP.

The big man of basketball is endorsing the big man of politics.

Newark-native Shaquille O’Neal is elbowing his way into the campaign scrum by backing the re-election of New Jersey Republican Governor Chris Christie in a television ad revealed days before the start of the NBA season and the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy.

In the 30-second spot, the star center who won four championships with the Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat makes his case for why New Jersey-ites of all political stripes should support the re-election of the man campaigning simply as “The Governor.”

“I don’t endorse many politicians. But Chris Christie is different,” Shaq says. “He’s working with me to bring jobs back to our cities and on a new program to help kids in tough neighborhoods get ahead. Governor Christie’s provided more funding for schools, given parents more choices in what schools their kids can go to, and merit pay for good teachers. He’s a good man. Excuse me, he’s a great man. Please join me in supporting Chris Christie–the Governor.”

Not all endorsements are created equal–and some celebrity endorsements can backfire (see Clint Eastwood’s interrogation of an empty chair at the 2012 GOP convention). But Shaq backing Chris Christie sends a message that should resonate in both the Garden State and throughout the national Republican Party.

Amid a fall of plummeting poll numbers and signs of a GOP pummeling coming in Virginia and New York City elections, Chris Christie is cruising to a landslide victory over his Democratic opponent Barbara Buono. While the strident social conservatism of Ken Cuccinelli scares off swing voters in the Old Dominion and Joe Lhota is being attacked on Gotham airwaves as a son of the Tea Party, Chris Christie is defying political gravity. His unapologetic center-right governance appeals beyond the base, providing a rare bright spot as the GOP tries to get out of the demographic trap of being the party of old white men.

Because Christie is consistently in the top-tier of potential 2016 GOP contenders, his re-election is a bellwether–sure to be studied and touted as much as George W. Bush’s 1998 Texas re-election landslide provided an argument for the appeal of “compassionate conservatism” after repudiation of the Gingrich revolution.

The latest Fairleigh-Dickinson poll shows 53 percent of non-white voters approve of Christie’s job in office, while only 34 percent disapprove–and he’s beating Buono among non-white voters by an eight-point margin. For the modern GOP, this is almost unheard of–somewhere between drawing a straight flush and adopting a unicorn.

To date, Christie has received the support of 25 prominent African-American elected officials and pastors from across New Jersey in addition to 52 Democratic politicos. One important reason given in testimony after testimony is Governor Christie’s support for school choice and The Opportunity Scholarship Act, which would have funded a pilot program offering state scholarships to low income students, allowing them to leave failing public schools. Democrats blocked the bill in the statehouse. Not incidentally, Shaq’s endorsement specifically gives a shout out to education reform as a common cause, from school choice to merit pay.

But there’s another more basic reason for Christie’s surprising African-American endorsements: he shows up. At town hall after town hall, Christie has come to inner city communities and answered questions directly, without pandering or prevaricating. Sadly, that itself is a lesson for Republicans, who too often avoid campaigning or appearing in inner-city neighborhoods, compounding their electoral disadvantage by apparent disinterest. As Mayor Michael Blunt of Chesilhurst, an African-American Democrat and Christie supporter explained to Josh Barro: “He talks to them. He makes them feel comfortable.”

Keep in mind that no New Jersey Republican has won more than 17 percent of the African-American vote in twenty years – and Christie won only 9 percent of the African-American vote when he first ran in 2009. He has more than tripled his support after four years in office, while Washington has only grown more bitterly polarized. And that’s because he’s reached out while also offering strong leadership, reminding Republicans that the two principles are not mutually exclusive.

Whether the Shaquille O’Neal endorsement moves more votes into the Christie column remains to be seen–but it is a significant marker of this campaign that symbolizes the Governor’s ability to pull together unexpected coalitions. It will get Christie’s campaign noticed by political agnostics far away from the Jersey Shore (and might raise interesting questions about President Obama’s notable silence in support of Barbara Buono to date).

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So while one-time conservative Christie fans like Ann Coulter vent their spleen about how he betrayed them for daring to appear with President Obama after Hurricane Sandy, their bitter play-to-the-base approach to politics led to the GOP’s current mess. If Chris Christie can win a landslide re-election in a state where only 20 percent of registered voters are Republicans (compared to 30 percent Democrats and 48 percent independents)–making inroads into the African-American and Latino communities at the same time–GOP strategists should soon be swarming the Garden State to learn what Chris Christie is doing right.