New Jersey’s longest-running state Senate president has lost his seat to a truck driver who reportedly spent only $153 on Dunkin and paper fliers over the course of his campaign.
Steve Sweeney, the Democratic Senate president in NJ, has lost to Edward Durr, a furniture company truck driver. With 98% of the vote counted, Sweeney remained about 2,000 votes short of Durr when The Associated Press called the race Thursday morning.
The loss by one of New Jersey’s most powerful politicians will result in upheaval of political power in the state, forcing the Senate to find a new president. Sweeney has been the chamber’s leader since 2010.
Just four years ago, he won reelection in what at the time may have been the most expensive legislative race in American history.
Sweeney's loss came on the same election as his fellow Democrat, Gov. Phil Murphy, nearly lost a re-election that polls and political experts in the Garden State long had predicted as an easy victory. It was anything but: Murphy was finally projected as winner on Wednesday evening when he was up by only 19,000 votes over his Republican challenger out of more than 2.3 million ballots cast.
Durr said he entered the race after being denied a concealed carry permit despite having a clean record. State campaign finance records show a slate of three candidates, including Durr, raised more than $10,000 during their campaign, but he spent only $153.31: $66.64 at Dunkin to buy food and drinks for staff and $86.67 for paper flyers and business cards.
An Election Law Enforcement Commission document filed online on Thursday shows he may have spent more than that, showing that $2,300 was spent. But even if true, that number microscopic considering the tremors he just sent through state politics.
Aside from occasional yard signs seen in and around Durr's hometown of Logan, and knocking on doors, there wasn't much to the campaign itself for the projected winner. Durr's modest house near a highway in Gloucester County, still bedecked with campaign signs and a Gadsden "Don't Tread on Me" flag, served as the nerve center of the campaign.
As for who he credits for the tremendous upset, Durr's response was simple.
"People. It didn't happen because of me, I'm nobody. I'm absolutely nobody, I'm just a simple guy," he said.
Durr called the past couple of days "a whirlwind, kind of surreal." He attributed his victory to his appeal to voters — Republican or Democrat — in his part of southern New Jersey, after more than a year and a half of pandemic fatigue.
"It was a repudiation of the policies that have been forced down their throats — people told they can't have a job, they can't go to church, they can't go to school, they can't go shopping, they can't go and eat dinner," Durr told NBC New York. "You can't tell people they can't do things when we live in the freest country in the world."
Durr's unprecedented win coincided with boosted GOP turnout even in an off-year election that saw Republicans make gains across the state. His victory netted about 3 percent more votes than Sweeney did in 2017 in unofficial returns.
“Well, I’m a numbers guy and I’ve looked at the numbers over the years,” Durr said in an August interview with conservative commentator Elizabeth Nader. “We have a district that is 150,000 voters. Senator Sweeney has never broken 32,000 votes ... and so I felt if he can’t even get half the district, that means there’s numbers out there to be taken, and you just have to get people to come out and vote. I believe if they come out and vote, we could win,” Durr said.
Durr promises lower property taxes and the creation of a “friendly business environment.” He describes himself as a 2nd Amendment rights advocate and fiscally conservative. He has previously run unsuccessfully for state Assembly in 2017 and 2019, but this is his first elected position.
“I joked with people and I said, ‘I’m going to shock the world, I’m going to beat this man,’” Durr said Wednesday afternoon in an interview with NJ.com. “I was saying it, but really kind of joking. Because what chance did a person like me really stand against this man? He’s literally the second-most powerful person in the state of New Jersey.”
"Not everybody has to have a lot of money to run. All they have to do is have a heart for the people, and he’s got a heart for the working people," Gloria Durr said. She also shared that her husband of 63 years, Edward Durr Sr., died just two weeks ago and that her son, despite being on the campaign trail, "was right there by his dad's side throughout."
Durr's projected victory was unexpected, and has cast the fate of state government into uncertainty. The loss unfolded in a politically competitive suburban Philadelphia district whose counties split their votes between Democrats and Republicans in the presidential elections in 2016 and again in 2020.
“It is stunning and shocking and I cannot figure it out,” said Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg said in an interview.
Sweeney has held the District 3 seat since 2004. It encompasses parts of Cumberland and Gloucester counties, as well as all of Salem County. A loss would also raise questions about the political power of South Jersey Democratic boss George Norcross, who has been aligned with Sweeney for decades.
Sweeney released a statement acknowledging that he is trailing in the race, but did not concede, saying he wants to make sure every vote is counted because that's what the voters deserve, and he will wait for the final results. New Jersey law allows mail-in votes postmarked by 8 p.m. Tuesday (Election Day) to arrive at county election centers through Nov. 8, six days after the election. Provisional counting doesn't begin until Friday.
If the victory holds for Durr, he'll have to find time to be in Trenton and stay on the job as a truck driver, but said he'd be able to work it out. Those close to Sweeney said to expect him back in politics in the not-too-distant future.
Meanwhile, Durr was out on Thursday taking a victory lap.
"People's voice has been heard. There'll be more to come," he said."