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Republican Ed Durr says his win over N.J. Senate President Steve Sweeney is a rejection of pandemic restrictions

“I’m absolutely nobody. I’m just a simple guy," Durr told reporters. "It was the people, it was a repudiation of the policies that have been forced down their throats."

Edward Durr stands outside of is home on Lamson Lane in Repaupo, N.J., on Thursday.
Edward Durr stands outside of is home on Lamson Lane in Repaupo, N.J., on Thursday.Read moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

Republican Edward Durr Jr. may have toppled the longest-serving State Senate president in New Jersey history, but the South Jersey truck driver who campaigned on a shoestring budget isn’t taking much credit for the win.

“I’m absolutely nobody. I’m just a simple guy. It was the people, it was a repudiation of the policies that have been forced down their throats,” Durr told reporters in Gloucester County on Thursday, shortly after the Associated Press projected he’d defeated Democratic State Sen. Steve Sweeney.

Durr is no fan of Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy’s pandemic policies.

“It’s people told they can’t have a job. They can’t go to church. They can’t go to school. You can’t go shopping. They can’t go and eat dinner,” said Durr, 58, offering his assessment of why voters rallied to him.

“You cannot continue to tell people they cannot do things when we live in the freest country in the world. And you think you’re just gonna sit on your hands and do nothing. Gov. Murphy kept telling you, ‘no, no, no.’ And Senator Sweeney sat there and all right, whatever.

“So the people said, ‘No, you’re not doing your job,’ ” he said. “ ‘Take a seat, we’ll find somebody else [to] do the job.’ ”

Durr’s victory came as Republican Jack Ciattarelli fell just short of defeating Murphy in a state President Joe Biden won by 16 points last year. Former President Donald Trump twice carried Sweeney’s Third Legislative District, which spans Salem and parts of Gloucester and Cumberland Counties.

New Jersey may be the most densely populated state in the nation, but Sweeney’s district is home to mostly small, working-class towns with rural stretches. Drive through Salem County and you’ll come across Cowtown Rodeo, dating back nearly a century.

Sweeney received only slightly fewer votes than he did four years ago in his reelection bid. But Durr outperformed Sweeney’s GOP opponent in 2017 by more than 10,000 votes, an increase of nearly 50%. He defeated the Senate president by about 2,100 votes out of some 64,000 cast, according to unofficial results. Sweeney’s Assembly running mates, John Burzichelli and Adam Taliaferro, also appeared to have lost.

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

Sweeney’s slate had spent more than $1 million as of late October, records show. Durr, of Logan Township, said he spent less than $10,000.

His win surprised leaders in both parties, according to interviews with a half-dozen political insiders. After all, Sweeney’s opponents had tried many times to defeat him.

In 2017, the state’s largest teachers union — upset over Sweeney’s position on their members’ benefits — spent $5 million trying to unseat him. In that case, the Senate president made his own reelection bid a top priority. This year, Sweeney and his political ally George E. Norcross III, the insurance executive and Democratic power broker, didn’t anticipate the threat, according to three people close to them.

In a statement Thursday, Sweeney stopped short of conceding.

“The results from Tuesday’s election continue to come in, for instance there were 12,000 ballots recently found in one county,” he said. “While I am currently trailing in the race, we want to make sure every vote is counted. Our voters deserve that, and we will wait for the final results.”

Durr is a nonunion truck driver for the Raymour & Flanigan furniture chain. He lives in a bright blue, one-story home on a quiet road off a highway in Swedesboro. He and his wife have three children. In front of their house, a yellow Gadsden “Don’t Tread On Me” flag flew on a pole, alongside an American flag. A broken-down Mustang sat in the driveway. Durr’s beloved Harley Davidson stood next to it Thursday. “Edward Durr 4 Senate” and “Jack for Governor” campaign signs lined the street.

After speaking to reporters on the side of the road near his home, Durr said he needed to get home to take his three pit bulls — Bella, Apollo, and Lexi — out for their walk.

Signs posted on his campaign website protest “20 yrs of Democrat rule” and “taxes, taxes, taxes!!!” His Facebook messages praise Trump and criticize Biden. There are many messages in support of gun rights.

Durr ran unsuccessfully for State Assembly in the same district two years ago. He’ll serve a two-year term, after which he can run for a four-year term — a peculiarity of New Jersey’s election system. State senators are paid $49,000 a year.

“Countywide, it was a red wave,” said Jacci Vigilante, chair of the Gloucester County GOP. “Voters did not want to elect career politicians. They recognized those politicians had done nothing while in office to make Gloucester County residents’ lives any better.”

Durr’s campaign, she said, “was truly a grassroots organization,” built on door knocking and speaking to residents.

“It was true old fashioned, get out the vote for Ed, because he didn’t raise a lot of money,” she said.

Linda DuBois, chairwoman of the Salem County GOP, described Durr as “one of your very down-to-earth folks who’s never owned his own business or anything like that, and just does what he needs to do to make sure he gets food on the table for his family.”

Sweeney, 62, was elected to the Senate in 2001 and served as the chamber’s president since 2010. In that role, he has helped guide policy-making on everything from economic development in South Jersey to annual budgets to the appointment of scores of judges.

He helped grow Rowan University in Glassboro into a research institution and played a key role in opening the Paulsboro Marine Terminal in 2017 — the first new terminal on the Delaware River in 50 years. The port is expected to help power New Jersey’s offshore wind industry and support thousands of manufacturing jobs. And a 200-acre, $200 million state-funded Wind Port is being planned for Lower Alloways Creek in Salem County.

“The money that came to South Jersey as a result of what they did — I thought that was strongest message they had,” said Robert N. DiLella, a Democratic consultant and former clerk of the Gloucester County board of commissioners. “Whether you like them or disliked them, finally South Jersey was getting their fair share.”

He described the district as “a lot of working-class people who feel as though the Democratic Party does not speak for them.”

“They made a statement,” he said.

Burzichelli, the assemblyman who ran with Sweeney, said “it seemed like the Trump extremists got new life when the withdrawal from Afghanistan went the way it went.”

“The Washington soap opera has had a considerable effect on this election,” Burzichelli said. He added that voters were tired of pandemic restrictions and that Murphy’s candidacy hadn’t inspired turnout.

DuBois, the Salem GOP chair, said she didn’t think the election was a personal rejection of Sweeney. “I think it’s just the tide,” she said. Murphy’s handling of the pandemic — and mask mandate in schools in particular — was deeply unpopular, she said.

Biden’s campaigning with Murphy didn’t help Sweeney’s cause, she said: “It made Salem County unhappy. The only way to fix that was to vote Republican.”

“Those of us that know him do appreciate what he has done for us,” DuBois said of Sweeney. “That’s never been a question. But I think the whole mentality was voters wanted to put Republicans in, period. It could have been anybody.”

Staff writers John Duchneskie, Jonathan Lai, and Allison Steele contributed to this article.