Tuesday was rife with surprises, but none was more shocking than the Senate result in South Jersey’s 3rd district. Political unknown Edward Durr ousted larger-than-life Senate President Steve Sweeney, one of the most powerful politicians in the state. Sweeney was first elected to his seat in 2001 and has been President of the upper chamber since 2010.
Astronomically outraised and outspent, our team felt that Durr’s campaign was little more than a quixotic long-shot bid to flip a traditionally-Democratic seat that Sweeney won easily in 2017. After all, how could the giant be toppled with just $2,300 if $5 million did not do the trick last time?
Even if Murphy falters here on Tuesday, we have no doubt that Sweeney will have another easy reelection.Harrison Lavelle (11/1)
The giant was toppled and we were very wrong. As election experts, we know a lot about electoral histories, district fundamentals, and candidate backgrounds. But sometimes we blatantly miss the mark. Predicting elections can be a lot like sports. Sometimes you find yourself wandering through a corn maze with a blindfold on. That begs the question: why were we so wrong?
The 3rd legislative district is based primarily in Gloucester County, but extends south into Salem and Cumberland counties. Traditionally more Democratic like much of South Jersey, the seat has grown more Republican at the federal level in recent years. Former President Trump won here twice, getting roughly 50% of the vote on both occasions. Governor Murphy carried the seat by eight points in 2017, performing exceptionally well down state.
Democrats have monopolized down ballot Senate contests here for decades. Before Sweeney, popular Democrat Raymond Zane held the seat for nearly three decades. Zane switched parties ahead of the 2001 cycle and ended up losing a close race to Sweeney as a Republican; you can read more about his party switch here.
Durr is the first Republican elected to the seat since the State Senate adopted single-member districts for the 1973 elections. Beth Sawyer and Beth McCarthy Patrick are the first Republicans to win Assembly seats here since 1999.
Demographically, the seat is 67% white with the plurality of voters (36.5%) registered as unaffiliated. Democrats account for 36.4% of registered voters, with Republicans making up the leftover 25.6% as of July 2021.
The 2017 Race
One of the main reasons that this Tuesday’s results were so shocking was the fact that Sweeney won his toughest reelection fight by 17 points. Sweeney had triumphed in closer reelection contests on three prior occasions, but his opponents had never invested as much into defeating him as they did in 2017.
Challenger Fran Grenier was bolstered by the NJEA, the Garden State’s largest teacher’s union. The union’s Executive Director Ed Richardson implied that the endorsement was predicated by Sweeney’s decision to retract his support for placing a constitutional amendment to solidify the state pension system on the ballot.
The NJEA spent almost $5 million on the race. When it was all said and done, total spending exceeded $25 million. The race might be the most expensive state legislative contest in American history. It is unlikely that another legislative race this costly will grace New Jersey anytime soon.
Sweeney’s landslide victory cast doubt on the effectiveness of heavy opposition spending from independent groups. With widespread support, the Senate President had outrun Governor Murphy by nearly 10 points to win a sixth term. This led demoralized state Republicans to lose confidence in their chances of winning the increasingly-less hostile 3rd in the future. Sweeney would not be going anywhere anytime soon.
Why Sweeney Lost
The prediction of Sweeney’s assured future obviously did not pan out. Elections Daily was not the only outlet covering this year’s legislative elections to undersell Durr’s chances. No one on the Jersey political scene expected the Democratic titan to lose after such a vindicating 2017 performance. It is not as surprising in hindsight, then, that Sweeney lost when we expected it the least. So why did he lose?
Senator Sweeney lost because the Gloucester portion of his district swung 21 points toward the Republicans. About 60% of the votes in the 3rd district are cast in this part of the seat. The veteran incumbent won it by 22 points in 2017 but carried it by just one on Tuesday. That proved to be too much for him to overcome.
There were similarly large swings in the Salem and Cumberland portions of the district, which Durr flipped to the GOP by one and 14 points respectively. The unexpected nature of the result poses an important question: was this a fluke?
Given his tenure and extensive campaign infrastructure advantages, it seems easy to write off Sweeney’s loss as a fluke upset in a bad environment. While the outcome was certainly an upset, it may not have been as much of a fluke as we originally thought.
Comparing recent election results here on the municipality level sheds light on some of the forces that have been at work under the hood. The most impactful has been the fact that the district is getting redder. Once prime Obama territory like much of South Jersey, the 3rd saw Trump increase GOP vote share in both of his elections.
Above we compared the 2017 Senate race and the latest Presidential results. Since we do not have 2021 municipality data yet, the last federal result is the probably the best depiction of Durr’s victory that we currently have. Both Biden and Sweeney got roughly the same share of the vote, carrying only the bluest parts of the district.
Why is this an upset?
We understand why some are hesitant to call Tuesday’s race an upset. Seniority aside, Sweeney lost an ever-reddening Trump district amid an awful national environment for his party. Increasing polarization has resulted in the federalization of traditionally local campaigns.
Voters who knew next to nothing of Mr. Durr’s background broke for him much like they did for the former President last year. The phenomenon is rather straightforward. The Biden Administration is unpopular nationwide and Republicans turned out en masse to rebuke the Democratic Party at the state and federal levels. If the nationalization of state races continues, it will matter less how tenured or electorally-reliable an incumbent is if they are in the wrong place at the wrong time like Sweeney was.
It is more reasonable to classify the result as an upset because of who he beat, not why he won. As President of the Senate, Sweeney is the second-most powerful official after the Governor. After a decade of influence characterized by both acclaim and condemnation, the six-term Senator’s defeat leaves New Jersey’s government in limbo.
Who is Edward Durr?
Now that we have analyzed why Sweeney lost, it is worth asking a far more important question: who is the next 3rd district Senator?
Durr is a truck driver for Raymour & Flanigan. According to the New Jersey Globe, he has run for office before unsuccessfully, though the scale of his latest feat more than remedies his previous electoral shortcomings. Republicans allocated no resources to this year’s campaign against the Senate’s top Democrat, leaving Durr to scrape by on a shoestring budget. The candidate himself recognized the scale of his daunting task.
“I kept telling myself and telling people I was going to do it, but in the back of my mind I was like, ‘You know, how am I going to beat the Senate president?’”Edward Durr, quoted from Politico
But he did unseat the Senate President, a come-from-behind tale that has garnered Durr national recognition. His new image as the David who slew Goliath could come to define him when he heads to Trenton in January. Durr considers his victory a referendum on Governor Murphy’s handling of the coronavirus and the unpopularity of legislative Democrats per POLITICO.
Durr’s sudden ascendance into the national political spotlight has not been without controversy. Numerous off-color and offensive tweets have resurfaced in the aftermath of Tuesday’s most shocking result. In what is possibly a sign that he plans on taking his role seriously, Durr recently issued an apology for anything he has said that could have “hurt anyone’s feelings”.
The Republican Party seems to be in a good place here going forward, though Durr’s specific fate remains uncertain.
You can watch a Save Jersey interview with the Senator-elect here.
Even though Sweeney has not yet conceded, the race to replace him as Senate President has already begun. Senator Nicholas Scutari of Union County seems to be the current favorite of the South Jersey machine. We will be covering Sweeney’s replacement race in more detail as soon as he concedes and the election results are certified.