The crushing defeat of Democratic Senate Speaker Steve Sweeney in Tuesday’s election was not just the overthrow of a well-established and powerful politician. It was also an unexpected blow to the South Jersey Democratic establishment.
The longest-serving Senate speaker in state history and the second most powerful elected official in New Jersey, Sweeney has left his mark on most of the major legislative accomplishments of the past decade. With the help of his childhood friend George E. Norcross III, the millionaire insurance executive and Democratic broker, Sweeney has spent years bolstering the political clout of southern Jersey, an area once overshadowed by Democrats in the north of the state.
READ MORE: Powerful South Jersey Senator Steve Sweeney loses to little-known Republican: ‘Great to see’
The ouster of Sweeney by Republican Edward Durr Jr., a Gloucester County truck driver who never held an elected office and campaigned without the support of the Trenton GOP, ushers in a period of deep uncertainty for a political machine that has been a stable, albeit controversial, fact of life for over a quarter of a century.
His defeat is celebrated not only by Republicans but also by progressives, who have tried for years to undermine what they say is a corrupt crony system that rewards loyalty to Norcross and prevents foreigners from holding elected office.
Left-wing critics felt they were gaining ground on Norcross a few years ago, when newly-elected Gov. Phil Murphy ordered a task force to determine whether a tax incentive scheme had unduly favored companies affiliated with Norcross.
But on Tuesday, the biggest blow to the machine in years came from the right. And one of the biggest questions in political circles now is what that means for Norcross, who is seen as the driving force behind a political apparatus that started in Camden County and has grown to include most of the South. from Jersey.
In an interview on Friday, Norcross said he still hopes Sweeney will run for governor in 2025.
“Because he is the only Democrat in the past 15 years who has been able to properly connect with working class men and women of all stripes,” he said.
Still, Sweeney’s defeat is sure to diminish South Jersey’s long-standing power in Trenton, where area lawmakers have held the highest office in the Assembly or Senate since 2006. County’s Nicholas Scutari Union was named president next Friday.
“You can’t replace Steve Sweeney, that just doesn’t happen,” said Sweeney’s running mate John Burzichelli (D., Gloucester), who was also beaten this week. “And for Steve, not being there sets the interests of this region back probably 25 years.”
Durr’s victory was a sign of an electoral wave that helped propel Republican Jack Ciattarelli’s closer-than-expected challenge to Gov. Phil Murphy’s re-election bid and the GOP’s victory in the Virginia governor’s race.
Members of both parties described the results as a rejection of President Joe Biden as well as Murphy. Biden’s approval ratings began to fall after the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan and continued to decline amid rising inflation and an inability to move his agenda forward. Some Democrats say the party’s message was too liberal, discouraging moderates.
But while many other Democrats managed to survive, the district of Sweeney and Burzichelli was particularly vulnerable. It does not have a large city or populated suburb which recently propelled Democrats, but has a significant share of the kind of working class voters and campaigns that have fled the party, a Democratic member said.
“It sounds a lot like the districts Democrats struggled to hold across the country,” said the Democrat, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about the results.
Norcross, who has long worried Democrats are losing their grip on working-class voters, said this week’s gubernatorial election would be more competitive than many predicted. But Sweeney’s defeat took Democrats completely by surprise, contradicting the polls and any metrics they had to predict election day results.
âIt was a tsunami that took place at the end that no one saw coming,â Norcross said. “Anybody.”
Sweeney stopped before conceding. âWhile I am currently lagging behind in the race,â he said in a statement earlier this week, âwe want to make sure every vote is counted. Our voters deserve it and we will wait for the final results. “
Durr, 58, said his victory was a repudiation of the state’s pandemic policies such as warrants for vaccines and masks. Hours after being screened as the winner of his race, he was called on to resign after a journalist posted offensive posts on social media, including one calling undocumented immigrants ‘criminals’ and another calling l ‘false religion’ Islam. Durr apologized on Friday.
Durr will take office in January and serve a two-year term, and then may run for a four-year term under the New Jersey electoral system. In interviews with progressive Democrats who have long fought against the party establishment, some admitted that replacing Sweeney with Durr was not the victory they envisioned – but it was an outcome they could live with. for the chance to elect a new Democrat in two years.
Sweeney, 62, a trade unionist by trade, had been Speaker of the House since 2010 after winning the first election in 2001. He has helped guide policy-making on everything from economic development in South Jersey to annual budgets to the appointment of dozens of judges. Norcross called him the âLyndon Johnson of Trenton,â claiming he had become a master at closing deals.
While many counties in northern Jersey have larger populations, and therefore larger delegations, and shoot at Trenton, southern Jersey has matched their might and gained its share of influence and state aid. by uniting across the counties in the kind of collective effort Sweeney compared to his days as a union leader.
He has become unbeatable. In 2017, the state’s largest teachers’ union – upset over Sweeney’s stance on member benefits – spent $ 5 million trying to topple him, only to see him win by 18 points. Murphy was elected that year after campaigning on a proudly progressive platform.
Murphy’s handling of COVID-19 garnered broad public approval in early 2020. But as the pandemic progressed, some Democrats said voters were unhappy with his inattention to economic issues such as the cost of living. state high. School closures and parental controls have also resonated with frustrated parents, some said, noting how the issue galvanized voters in the race for governor of Virginia. There, winning Republican Glenn Youngkin spoke out against critical race theory and Democrat Terry McAuliffe was lambasted for arguing against parental control of curriculum.
âIt’s emblematic of the fact that National Democrats are just going too far to the left on a host of issues,â said Bill Palatucci, a longtime Republican agent and adviser to former Gov. Chris Christie. “No one here in New Jersey has talked about McAuliffe, no one here in New Jersey has done a poll on it, but trust me, it has been heard statewide.”
Meanwhile, Trump voters furious at the 2020 results and Biden’s performance came out in force, Democrats said. About 2.5 million votes were cast in the race, up from around 2 million in 2017. Most of the wave was made up of Republican voters.
Several Democrats feared the energy would continue into 2022, when several Democratic members of Congress are vulnerable, including Andy Kim from South Jersey. The South Jersey agent said: “I think next year will be a bloodbath.”