Estimated reading time: 6 minute(s)

Yesterday, I covered two inspiring political comeback stories. The first of those stories covered Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown’s retaining his seat in a write-in general election campaign after he lost the Democratic Primary months earlier. While I took the view that Mr. Brown committed a bit of political malpractice in the primary, he at least took care to fail in the primary rather than the general election. If you fail in the general election, there is no second chance. Today we tell the story of soon-to-be former New Jersey Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney, and New Jersey State Senator-elect Ed Durr.

(Note: Added two updates on November 10, 2021, relating to Mr. Sweeney’s formally conceding to Mr. Durr.)

Who Is Stephen M. Sweeney?

Stephen M. Sweeney is the longest-serving Senate President in New Jersey history, having risen to the top of the upper house of the New Jersey legislature in 2010. He was elected to represent New Jersey’s 3rd Senatorial District in 2001, and he won re-election in 2003, 2007, 2011, 2013, and 2017. His most lopsided victory came in 2017, when he defeated his Republican challenger by 18 points in the most expensive State legislature race in U.S. history.

After prevailing in a historically high-spending election in 2017, Mr. Sweeney drew no significant opponents in 2021. He was reportedly viewd as a potential candidate for Governor of New Jersey in 2025, and he looked forward to another four years as Senate President.

Who Is Ed Durr?

Ed Durr, the Republican candidate for State Senate in New Jersey’s 3rd Senatorial District, is a truck driver. He ran twice for a seat in the New Jersey General Assembly in 2017 and 2019, coming up well short on both occasions.

Screenshot of NJ State Senator-elect Ed Durr introducing himself in his campaign video.
Screenshot from Mr. Durr’s very home-spun campaign video.

Would the third time be the charm?

Sweeney Beats Durr, Dewey Beats Truman

Shortly after polls closed in New Jersey at 8:00 pm, The New Jersey Globe projected that Stephen Sweeney had won reelection. This projection was made at 8:10. I doubt anyone had thought much of it. After having won a very expensive reelection fight in 2017, Mr. Sweeney had seemingly faced only nominal opposition in 2021 in the form of Mr, Durr.

The Globe’s call was not likely backed up by polling – I doubt any polling was done of the Sweeney-Durr race. As the actual results came in, however, astute election followers began to note that Mr. Sweeney might actually be in trouble. The evidence was enough that the Globe retracted its call of the race as well as its premature call of two other Democratic victories in South Jersey “after it became clear all three Democrats stood a strong chance of losing.”

Indeed – as the votes were tallied Mr. Sweeney was actually losing to Mr. Durr.

State Senator-elect Edward Durr

Itbecame clear the day after the election that Mr. Durr had likely defeated Mr. Sweeney, the most powerful legislator in New Jersey, in a stunning upset. Two days after the election, the Associated Press and many other outlets projected that Mr. Durr, with a lead of just over 2,000 votes, was the State Senator-elect for New Jersey’s 3rd District (it is worth noting that Mr. Sweeney has not yet conceded as of November 6, 2021).

Update (11/10/2021): Mr. Sweeney conceded to Mr. Durr on November 10, 2021,and congratulated Mr. Durr on the victory.

It appears that no one predicted that Mr. Sweeney was in any danger of losing his reelection. Indeed, Mr. Sweeney’s predecessor as Senate President, Mr. Richard Cody, opined that “no one on God’s earth could have predicted that.” The second-highest ranking State Senate Democrat, Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, stated that she was “shocked, like everyone else is.”

The Victorious Durr Campaign

There was a story in the immediate aftermath of Mr. Durr’s victory that he had spent only $153 on his campaign. In an interview with Mr. Joel Pollack of Breitbart, Mr. Durr explained that this figure was incorrect – and that he spent about $8,000-$9,000. Considering the millions of dollars that were spent on the same race in 2017, Mr. Durr had won the seat for an astronomically large discount.

While Mr. Durr did spend a bit more than $153, he ran a very small campaign. He had no campaign website, and his campaigning was done door-to-door. Mr. Durr, who still works as a trucker close to his home, explained that he campaigned on afternoons and evenings with several volunteers after he finished his shift. His campaign was very walking-centric, something I can respect as the editor of a walking-friendly publication:

I walked three to four hours on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Saturdays and Sundays, I walked six to eight hours. We usually had half a dozen volunteers. One time we went out and we had twelve to thirteen go out with us.

He even walked when he did not feel like it:

Trust me, plenty days I did not feel like walking. It was too hot, my ankles and my feet hurt — I’m not a young man anymore, and I have gout, and plantar fasciitis — it was a hard thing.

Humorously, Mr. Durr noted that he encountered Mr. Sweeney on one of his walks. He challenged Mr. Sweeney to a debate, but according to Mr. Durr, Mr. Sweeney laughed at him.

In my previous article, I quoted former Senator John Glenn’s assessment that a politician must run scared or run unopposed. It appears Mr. Sweeney ran with a laugh.

The Strategy

Not much is known about Mr. Durr’s campaign other than what Mr. Durr himself has explained. We know from his interview with Mr. Pollack that he did quite a bit of walking – but was there a method to where he walked?

Mr. Durr explaned that he studied Mr. Sweeney’s many victories and came up with an astute observation. He noted that Mr. Sweeney had never won more than about 31,000 votes in an election. This indicated to Mr. Durr that with the low turnout in the district, Mr. Sweeney was vulnerable to someone who could “find the right people to come out and vote.”

Mr. Durr stated that he chose where to conduct his walking campaign based on where he thought he could find votes. While Mr. Durr’s campaign, which was inspired by his having been denied a carry permit, focused on a general set of issues, he explained that he also discussed very local issues that affected specific areas. For example, he discussed his opposition to a light rail line in Woodbury Heights, which resonated with local residents who also opposed it.

Mr. Sweeney’s highest raw election vote total came in 2017, when he captured 31,541 votes. As of the writing of this article, Mr. Durr has won 32,497 votes. While it is often the case that major surprises in local races come in low-turnout elections, the 2021 race for the 3rd Legislative District in New Jersey had the highest raw vote total in at least two decades.

Final Thoughts

How did the most powerful legislator in New Jersey lose to what sounds like a meme campaign?

It seems universally agreed that no one believed that Mr. Sweeney was in a competitive race, much less in potential trouble. The race received little-to-no attention from local or national sources. Mr. Durr ran a campaign on a microscopic budget and forewent a campaign website and other campaign amenities that one may expect to find in student council races, much less State Senate campaigns.

Comparisons of Mr. Durr’s victory to recent upsets such as David Bratt over former U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in 2014 or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez over Joe Crowley in New York in 2018 are misguided. Those races received attention and the underdog candidates had significant sources of support.

With all this being said, I do not think that Mr. Sweeney can be let off the hook for his performance. He held his seat for two decades, and was undoubtedly the most powerful Democrat in South Jersey. Mr. Sweeney is not a stranger to competitive campaigns, and Republicans are not scarce in his district. In light of the very favorable environment for Republicans in 2021, that Mr. Sweeney was completely blindsided by Mr. Durr seems attributable to a great deal of overweening complacency and total disregard of the possibility that he could lose to an opponent who he (may) have found laughable.

However, it is not entirely clear that even had Mr. Sweeney taken Mr. Durr’s challenge more seriously, he would have prevailed. Several of his colleagues also appear to have fallen in upsets in his district, and Mr. Durr won more raw votes than Mr. Sweeney had in any of his victories. There were likely many factors at play in the upset, but perhaps 2021 was inevitably going to be an inauspicious year for the soon-to-be former State Senate President. In his concession remarks on November 10, 2021, Mr. Sweeney cited to a Republican “red wave” that swept him out of office in favor of Mr. Durr.