The New Jersey Legislature could see a major shakeup — including the possible disappearance of its most prominent lawmaker, state Senate President Stephen Sweeney — in addition to the closer-than-expected governor’s race between Gov. Phil Murphy and Republican challenger Jack Ciattarelli.
It’s likely that Democrats will retain their nearly two-decade hold on the Legislature, the body in Trenton that crafts the state’s laws and passes the state budget. But their numbers are poised to shrink.
In the most stunning twist, Sweeney, D-Gloucester — the second-most powerful elected state official after Murphy and a force in New Jersey politics — could be on the verge of losing to a relatively unknown Republican opponent, Edward Durr.
Sweeney is trailing Durr by about 2,000 votes as of Wednesday morning in his re-election bid for the Senate seat he’s held for nearly 20 years in South Jersey’s 3rd legislative district.
This comes as Murphy and Ciattarelli are locked in a governor’s race that’s too close to call. Polls leading up to the election had predicted Murphy would beat Ciattarelli by about four to 11 points, but the governor saw smaller turnout in some key Democratic areas Tuesday, while the Republican challenger drove up big numbers in suburban regions.
Many legislative races also remain too close to call, but there’s reason for several sitting lawmakers to be concerned.
N.J. ELECTION 2021: Local and state results
Sweeney is the longest-tenured Senate president in New Jersey history, having held the post since 2010. He was expected to serve a seventh term in the position before launching a possible bid for governor in 2025.
His Republican challenger, Durr, 58, has worked as a truck driver for 25 years and is a life-long New Jersey resident, according to his website. He ran unsuccessfully for state Assembly in 2019 and has never held elected office.
Durr ran on a platform of limiting government, reducing taxes and fixing the state’s roads, but he did not garner much attention during the campaign.
He said Wednesday he’s not ready to declare victory because it’s unclear how many ballots need to be counted yet.
“I joked with people and I said, ‘I’m going to shock the world, I’m going to beat this man,’” Durr told NJ Advance Media. “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.”
Sweeney did not immediately return a call from NJ Advance Media seeking comment Wednesday.
The Senate president warded off what was seen as a more serious challenge in 2017 from Republican challenger Fran Grenier, a candidate backed by the powerful New Jersey Education Association — still the costliest state legislative race in the U.S. history, at $24.1 million, according to the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission. Despite the battle, Sweeney beat Grenier by more than 9,300 votes, or 18 percentage points.
But political observers say this year had a different dynamic. In the governor’s race, Ciattarelli has outperformed Murphy in all three of the counties in Sweeney’s district — Cumberland, Gloucester, and Salem. And while Sweeney is leading in both Cumberland and Gloucester, he trailing in Salem.
“I saw it early this morning and thought it must be a mistake,” Carl Golden, a former spokesman for Republican former Govs. Tom Kean and Christie Whitman, said of Sweeney losing. “That’s got to rank as a seismic upset.”
Ben Dworkin, director of Rowan University’s Institute for Public Policy and Citizenship, the electorate in parts of Sweeney’s district appears to have changed.
“Sweeney is a giant,” Dworkin said. “If he loses, it’s not just an earthquake in New Jersey politics, it’s a big bang. It completely upends everything.”
Senate Democrats were scheduled to gather Thursday to pick new caucus leadership. But Sweeney postponed the meeting.
“Due to the closeness of several State Senate elections, the Leadership Caucus scheduled for tomorrow will be delayed,” Sweeney said. “The Caucus will be rescheduled once the result of every Senate election is determined.”
A Sweeney loss would significantly change the landscape of state politics, giving rise to a new Senate president and likely shifting the dynamic between the Legislature and the governor’s office.
As Senate president, Sweeney decides what bills are voted on in the Legislature’s upper chamber and which of the governor’s nominees receive confirmation hearings. He has clashed with Murphy during the past four years on everything from taxes to tax credits. While both are Democrats, Sweeney is seen as a moderate and Murphy as more progressive.
Sweeney also had a close bipartisan relationship with former Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican. Despite hailing from different parties, he two worked together on public-worker pension reform and were on the same side of the 2017 state budget battle that led to a state government shutdown.
Just as notably, Sweeney has a longtime close friendship with South Jersey power broker George Norcross, a multimillionaire insurance executive known for fundraising and bankrolling candidates across the state and who is often considered the most powerful unelected official in New Jersey. This move would dampen Norcross’ influence on the state, siphoning power away from the powerful South Jersey Democratic bloc in the Legislature.
The Legislature currently has 25 Democrats in the Senate and 52 in the Assembly. But those numbers appear likely to change.
As of Wednesday morning, incumbent Sens. Vin Gopal, D-Monmouth, and Dawn Addiego, D-Burlington, were also trailing Republican challengers Lori Annetta and Jean Stanfield, respectively. Sen. Linda Greenstein, D-Middlesex, was locked in another race too close to call against Republican Adam Elias.
A similar situation was playing out in the Assembly, as Sweeney’s fellow Gloucester Democrats Adam Taliaferro and John Burzichelli — a veteran lawmaker — fell behind Republican challengers Bethanne McCarthy Patrick and Beth Sawyer. Monmouth County Democratic assembly members Eric Houghtaling and Joann Downey looked to be in trouble, too, as they tried to fight off Marilyn Piperno and Kimberly Eulner.
Democrats are also behind in the 16th District in Hunterdon County, where Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker left a seat to run for state Senate against former U.S. Rep. Michael Pappas. Republicans Vincent Panico and Joseph Lukac are leading in the race for the Assembly seats.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was updated to show the total cost of the 2017 race for Sweeney’s seat was $24.1 million according to the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission, up from past estimates of some $17 million.
NJ Advance Media staff writer Matthew Stanmyre contributed to this report.
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