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Steve Sweeney was knocked down by a political ‘tsunami.’ What does it mean for South Jersey?

The longest-serving Senate president in the state’s history and the second-most powerful elected official in New Jersey, Sweeney was defeated by a political newcomer who ran a shoestring campaign.

New Jersey Senate President Steve Sweeney at his office in West Deptford.
New Jersey Senate President Steve Sweeney at his office in West Deptford.Read moreAKIRA SUWA

The stunning defeat of Democratic Senate president Steve Sweeney in Tuesday’s election was not only the toppling of an entrenched and powerful politician. It was also an unexpected blow to the South Jersey Democratic establishment.

The longest-serving Senate president in the state’s history and the second-most powerful elected official in New Jersey, Sweeney has put his stamp on most major legislative accomplishments in the last decade. With the help of his childhood friend George E. Norcross III, the millionaire insurance executive and Democratic powerbroker, Sweeney spent years building political clout for South Jersey, a region once overshadowed by the Democrats in the northern part of the state.

» READ MORE: Powerful South Jersey Sen. Steve Sweeney loses to a little-known Republican: ‘Stunning to see’

Sweeney’s ousting by Republican Edward Durr Jr., a Gloucester County truck driver who’s never held elected office and campaigned without any GOP backing from Trenton, ushers in a time of deep uncertainty for a political machine that has been a stable, if controversial, fact of life for more than a quarter-century.

His defeat is being celebrated not only by Republicans but by progressives, who have for years tried to chip away at what they say is a corrupt system of cronyism that rewards loyalty to Norcross and blocks outsiders from holding elected office.

Critics on the left felt they were gaining ground on Norcross a few years ago, when newly elected Gov. Phil Murphy ordered a task force to investigate whether a tax incentive program had improperly favored companies affiliated with Norcross.

But on Tuesday, the strongest blow to the machine in years came from the right. And one of the biggest questions in political circles now is what it means for Norcross, who is credited as the driving force behind a political apparatus that began in Camden County and grew to include most of South Jersey.

In an interview Friday, Norcross said he still hoped Sweeney would run for governor in 2025.

“Because he’s the only Democrat in the last 15 years who’s been able to connect properly with working-class men and women of all colors,” he said.

Still, Sweeney’s defeat is sure to diminish South Jersey’s long-standing power in Trenton, where lawmakers from the region have held the top job in either the Assembly or Senate since 2006. Union County’s Nicholas Scutari was named Friday as the next president.

“You can’t replace Steve Sweeney, it just doesn’t happen,” said Assemblyman John Burzichelli (D., Gloucester), Sweeney’s running mate, who was also defeated this week. “And for Steve not to be there sets back the interests of this region probably 25 years.”

Durr’s victory was a sign of an election wave that helped power Republican Jack Ciattarelli’s closer-than-expected challenge to Gov. Phil Murphy’s reelection bid and the GOP win 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 tumbling after the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan and have continued falling amid rising inflation and an inability to advance his agenda. Some Democrats say the party’s message was too liberal, turning off moderates.

But while many other Democrats managed to survive, Sweeney and Burzichelli’s district was particularly vulnerable. It doesn’t have a big city or populous suburb, which have powered Democrats recently, but does have a significant share of the kind of working-class and rural voters who have fled the party, said one Democratic operative.

“It’s a lot like the districts that Democrats have struggled to hold all over the country,” said the Democrat, who requested anonymity to speak frankly about the results.

Norcross, who has long voiced concerns that the Democrats were losing their grip on working-class voters, had said this week’s gubernatorial election would be more competitive than many predicted. But Sweeney’s defeat caught Democrats completely by surprise, contradicting polling and every metric they had to forecast the Election Day results.

“This was a tsunami that took place at the end that nobody saw coming,” Norcross said. “No one.”

Sweeney has stopped short of conceding. “While I am currently trailing in the race,” he said in a statement earlier this week, “we want to make sure every vote is counted. Our voters deserve that, and we will wait for the final results.”

Durr, 58, has said his win was a repudiation of the state’s pandemic policies like vaccine and mask mandates. Hours after he was projected the winner in his race, he faced calls to resign after a reporter turned up offensive social media posts, such as one calling undocumented immigrants “criminals” and another that referred to Islam as a “false religion.” Durr apologized Friday.

Durr will take office in January and serve a two-year term, then can run for a four-year term under New Jersey’s electoral system. In interviews with progressive Democrats who have long fought against the party establishment, some acknowledged that replacing Sweeney with Durr wasn’t the victory they’d envisioned — but it was an outcome they could live with for the chance to elect a new Democrat in two years.

Sweeney, 62, a union ironworker by trade, served as the chamber’s president since 2010 after first winning election in 2001. He has helped guide policy-making on everything from economic development in South Jersey to annual budgets to the appointment of scores of judges. Norcross called him the “Lyndon Johnson of Trenton,” saying he became a master at getting deals done.

While many North Jersey counties have larger populations, and therefore larger delegations and pull in Trenton, South Jersey matched their might, and won its share of influence and state aid by uniting across counties in the kind of collective effort Sweeney likened to his days as a labor leader.

He came to be seen as unbeatable. In 2017, the state’s largest teachers union — upset over Sweeney’s position on their members’ benefits — spent $5 million trying to unseat 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 drew broad approval from the public in early 2020. But as the pandemic wore on, some Democrats said voters became disgruntled by his inattention to economic issues like the state’s high cost of living. School closures and parental control also resonated with frustrated parents, some said, pointing to the way that issue galvanized voters in the Virginia governor’s race. There, the winning Republican, Glenn Youngkin, railed against critical race theory and Democrat Terry McAuliffe was blasted for arguing against parents’ controlling curricula.

“It’s emblematic of national Democrats just going too far left on a host of issues,” said Bill Palatucci, a longtime Republican operative and adviser to former Gov. Chris Christie. “Nobody here in New Jersey talked about McAuliffe, nobody here in New Jersey did any polling about it, but believe me, it was heard throughout the state.”

Meanwhile, Trump voters infuriated by the 2020 results and by Biden’s performance came out in force, Democrats said. Roughly 2.5 million votes were cast in the race, up from around 2 million in 2017. Most of the surge was made up of Republican voters.

Several Democrats worried that energy could continue in 2022, when several Democratic members of Congress are vulnerable, including South Jersey’s Andy Kim. Said the South Jersey operative, “I think next year’s going to be a bloodbath.”