Senate President Steve Sweeney wished the winner of his race, Ed Durr, the best of luck. (Courtesy of New Jersey Senate Democrats)
Democratic Senate President Steve Sweeney conceded his stunning loss to Republican Ed Durr on Wednesday, blaming his defeat on a Republican wave that swept him, his running mates, and a handful of other Democrats out of office.
Durr, meanwhile, celebrated his unlikely win at a press conference in Turnersville, saying he was motivated to run by Donald Trump’s equally surprising ascent to the presidency and telling reporters he wants to stop Gov. Phil Murphy from “making New Jersey the California of the East Coast.”
“I just happened to be in the right place at the right time,” Durr said. “It was a good year for a lot of Republicans across the state.”
The dueling press conferences capped what has become the most closely watched race in New Jersey, at least once polls closed last week and it became clear Sweeney’s 25-year political career was in jeopardy.
Sweeney resisted conceding for more than a week, but admitted defeat while speaking to reporters in the Statehouse in Trenton.
“All votes have been fairly counted, and I, of course, accept the results,” he said. “I want to congratulate Mr. Durr and wish him the best of luck.”
Durr not a ‘career politician’
Durr edged out Sweeney by about 2,200 votes in the 3rd District, a collection of towns in Gloucester, Salem, and Cumberland counties. A trucker who drives for furniture retailer Raymour & Flanigan, Durr said Trump’s 2016 presidential victory showed him “you don’t have to be a career politician to win.”
Durr chalked last week’s election results to a distaste for Murphy among his district’s voters.
“They don’t want government rule by a dangerous guy armed with dangerous orders,” he said.
Durr pledged to “fight the tyranny that Gov. Murphy began on day one,” blasting the pandemic-related lockdowns, eviction moratoriums, and mask and vaccine mandates that Murphy ordered. Durr said his priorities as a legislator will be to find a fair school funding formula, bring jobs and businesses to New Jersey, and lower property taxes.
The Republican distanced himself from Islamophobic and other problematic tweets of his that made headlines after his victory become apparent. He had plans to meet with the Council on American-Islamic Relations this afternoon, he said, adding his tweets do not define him as a person.
“You get behind a keyboard, you don’t see a person, and you don’t consider the other person,” he said. “I just wrote something, I don’t mean to offend anybody. I’m not going to let the media make this about the posts. It should be about the policies being driven down our throats.”
Durr also congratulated Sweeney on his long career.
Sweeney pledges to stay involved
Durr’s victory upended the Senate’s leadership structure, setting off a brief contest among the chamber’s Democrats that already appears resolved. The caucus is set to hold leadership elections on Friday, and Union County Sen. Nicholas Scutari is expected to succeed Sweeney as Senate president.
Sweeney’s tenure — he joined the Senate in 2002 and became its president in 2010 — saw him become a polarizing force in New Jersey politics, at once hailed by members and observers for his ability to corral the Senate and derided by upstart political forces in the state over a belief that he stood in the way of their progressive policy efforts.
A former Gloucester County freeholder, Sweeney is the longest serving Senate president in New Jersey’s history.
On Wednesday he chalked up his loss to a robust performance by Republicans in the central and southern parts of the state, noting about 11,000 more votes were cast in the 3rd District this year than in 2017, when he last won re-election. Five years ago, Sweeney’s Republican challenger won 22,336 votes. Durr’s count stands at 33,663.
Margins were tighter than expected in the gubernatorial race and in a handful of competitive districts, with Republican candidates generally exceeding expectations. The GOP captured a few legislative seats from Democrats, besides Sweeney’s.
Despite his loss, Sweeney said he will remain active in state politics.
“I will be speaking from a different podium, but I promise you: I will be just as loud and just as forceful a voice for change,” he said during the press conference, which lasted for about eight minutes.
It’s not clear what form Sweeney’s continued involvement will take. He will keep his spot on the legislative redistricting commission, a position that could give him the ability to redraw the 3rd District’s lines to be more favorable for a repeat campaign in 2023. The 3rd District has about 16,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans, but unaffiliated voters outnumber both.
Sweeney declined to say whether he would seek re-election, but he did not rule out a 2023 bid. The Senate president has also been raised as a possible gubernatorial candidate in 2025.
“What I said is I’m not going away. I don’t say what I’m doing, but I can tell you something: I’ve been a believer in making New Jersey affordable for a long time,” he said. “I’ve been the one that has been through battles over pension and health care costs for a long time.”
The Senate president presented a somber face Wednesday, listing a series of priorities and policy accomplishments that included boosted funding for extraordinary special education aid, a $15 minimum wage, earned sick and family leave, bail reform, and marijuana legalization, among numerous others.
He also repeatedly raised affordability as an issue, promising to advocate for lower costs even after he leaves office on Jan. 11, mentioning specifically the cost of living for young adults, working families, and retirees.
“I plan to remain fully involved in public affairs in New Jersey. I will be speaking out for fiscal responsibility and reform,” he said. “I will be a strong voice for unity, for economic opportunity, and for competitiveness and growth.”
Democrats saw their worst legislative losses in years last week. They’re expected to lose one seat in the Senate (the GOP flipped two seats in that chamber and Democrats flipped one), and between four and six seats in the Assembly, including those held by Sweeney’s running mates, Assemblymen Adam Taliaferro and John Burzichelli, who chairs the Assembly Appropriations Committee.
Democrats lost both Assembly seats in the 2nd District and Assemblywoman Joann Downey and Assemblyman Eric Houghtaling narrowly trail their Republican challengers in the 11th with few votes left uncounted.
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