2014 is barely a week old, and yet the year has already given us its first political scandal – one that potentially has ramifications for years to come.
A string of emails published Wednesday by the Bergen Country Record suggest that staffers in the office of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie coaxed a Port Authority staffer to close lanes on the George Washington Bridge – crippling traffic and sparking outrage.
The alleged motive was to punish a political foe of Christie, Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, whose residents were those most likely to be affected by the closures. In an emotional news conference on Thursday, Christie announced he had fired longtime aide Bridget Kelly, whose email triggered the chain of events. He also cut ties with his former campaign manager, Bill Stepien, who was forced to forgo his relationship with the Republican Governor's Association, of which Christie is now head.
But Kelly and Stepien are unlikely to be the only political casualties from what some are calling "bridge-gate" and others have deemed "bridge-ghazi." The other major loser, besides Christie himself, is the national Republican Party. Christie was the GOP's only real hope of winning back the White House in 2016. More specifically, he was Republicans' only hope of saving their party from completing its permanent transition into the party of older white voters.
In 2012, when the Republican electorate was whiter than it had been in decades, black voter turnout for the first time surpassed that of whites, and the party's nominee, Mitt Romney, lost – unable to contend with President Barack Obama's more diverse coalition. As the Pew Research Center noted, nonwhite voters made up 23.6 percent of all voters in the 2012 election, which was a record. It prompted the National Journal's Ron Brownstein to summarize his post-2012 analysis thusly: "Republicans Can't Win With White Voters Alone."
Which is why the Christie implosion is so problematic for the GOP. Of all the likely 2016 contenders, Christie is the only one with any shot of wooing and winning voters of color.
How do we know? Because polls have said so, as have some of his high-profile celebrity supporters. As previously covered on The Root, during his re-election campaign, polls showed that his support from black voters was as high as 36 percent. That's quite a bit higher than the 8 percent of black-voter support captured by Romney, and definitely higher than the 4 percent Sen. John McCain won in 2008.
But the reality is that the GOP doesn't need its nominee to win 36 percent of black voters nationally to win the White House. As George W. Bush proved, getting into the double digits might be enough. Black voters are credited with delivering Ohio to the Republican in 2004. Although Bush won 11 percent of the black vote nationally, he won 13 percent in Florida and 16 percent in Ohio, in part thanks to the state's battle over same-sex marriage at the time, which is said to have mobilized some of the community's more socially conservative black voters.
Christie was the GOP's best hope of replicating the Bush strategy. During his recent campaign, basketball star Shaquille O'Neal endorsed Christie after working with the governor to bring jobs back to Newark, O'Neal's hometown. Shaq called in to TMZ on Thursday to say that he still supports the governor.
The GOP's other likely contenders, like Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, are unlikely to make headway with voters of color. Paul is weighed down by his many verbal missteps regarding the Civil Rights Act, and more specifically the question of whether he would have supported it. Meanwhile, Cruz and others are weighed down by their inflammatory rhetoric about President Obama, as well as issues like immigration.
Given the GOP's many racial stumbles this past year, and the trouble Republicans have finding a united voice on racial issues, it's unlikely that they are likely to become the party of the future.
Christie was their best hope. But not if he can't survive "bridge-gate."
(Keli Goff is The Root's special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.)