The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Edward Durr Jr., Republican truck driver and political novice, defeats longtime New Jersey state Senate President Steve Sweeney

A woman fills her ballot in a privacy booth in Newark during elections in New Jersey on Nov. 2, 2021.
A woman fills her ballot in a privacy booth in Newark during elections in New Jersey on Nov. 2, 2021. (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)

Truck driver Edward Durr Jr. (R) has defeated New Jersey state Senate President Steve Sweeney in one of the most stunning Democratic losses in this year’s elections.

The Associated Press called the race Thursday morning, with Durr taking 52 percent to Sweeney’s 48 percent. The latest tally shows Durr with 32,497 votes to Sweeney’s 30,268.

Durr has never held elective office and ran unsuccessfully for a state Assembly seat in 2019. In this year’s campaign, Durr and his two state Assembly running mates raised a total of $17,400 and spent a little over $2,300, according to Politico NJ.

Hours after the race was called in his favor, Durr faced calls to resign over past social media posts in which he denigrated Muslims, described Islam as “a false religion” and played down the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol by a pro-Trump mob.

“Islamophobes and other bigots should not be in policy-making positions impacting the lives of Americans of all faiths and backgrounds. Mr. Durr should either renounce his hate-filled statements or resign from office,” the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) said in a statement.

Durr later told a reporter for NPR member station WHYY that he was sorry “if I said anything in the past that hurt anybody’s feelings” — a statement that did not quell the outrage over his tweets.

On his bare-bones campaign website, Durr describes himself as “blue collar” and says he has been a commercial truck driver for 25 years. A Durr campaign video opens with the candidate stepping down from his truck and discussing the toll that coronavirus restrictions have taken on small businesses.

“The Senate president has spent 20 years in Trenton,” Durr says of Sweeney in the video. “Higher taxes, increasing debt and a rising cost of living. We deserve better. New Jersey, it’s time for a change. So together, let’s end single-party rule.”

The ad ends with Durr riding away on his Harley-Davidson motorcycle.

Lisa Camooso Miller, a former New Jersey Republican operative, said the victory of a political unknown such as Durr shows that Democrats had vastly misjudged the mood of voters in the district.

“That’s a race of anybody-but-Steve Sweeney,” Miller said of Durr’s win. “That, to me, is a reflexive response. If there were nobody but a write-in, a write-in could have been more successful [than Sweeney], perhaps.”

The Durr and Sweeney campaigns did not immediately respond to requests for comment from The Washington Post. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, Sweeney said in a statement Thursday that he was not yet conceding the race.

“The results from Tuesday’s election continue to come in, for instance there were 12,000 ballots recently found in one county,” Sweeney 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.”

In a Fox News Channel interview Wednesday night, Durr seemed somewhat unprepared when asked what his first task will be when he gets to the state Capitol in Trenton.

“Uh, I really don’t know,” Durr said. “That’s the key factor. I don’t know what I don’t know, so I will learn what I need to know. And I’m going to guarantee you one thing — I will be the voice, and people will hear me.”

He added: “If there’s one thing people will learn about me, I got a big mouth, and I don’t shut up. When I want to be heard, I will be heard.”

Among the social media posts that circulated Thursday afternoon was a September 2019 Twitter post in which Durr said, “Mohammed was a pedophile! Islam is a false religion! Only fools follow muslim teachings! It is a cult of hate!” The post was still online as of Thursday evening.

In a May 2019 tweet, Durr responded to a Ramadan message from New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) by claiming the governor “panders” to Muslims. The tweets were first reported by WNYC.

In its statement calling on Durr to resign, CAIR also pointed to a Facebook post in which Durr called the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol “not an insurrection . . . [but] an unauthorized entry by undocumented federal employers!”

Durr addressed the tweets in an interview with WHYY Thursday night.

“I’m a passionate guy. And I say things in the heat of the moment. And if I said anything in the past that hurt anybody’s feelings, I sincerely apologize. ... I support everybody’s right to worship in any manner they choose, to the God of their choice,” he said.

The civil rights group Muslim Advocates said Durr’s statement “falls short of a sincere apology” and urged him to disavow his tweets or “give up the office” to which he was elected this week.

“Reading between the lines of his response, Mr. Durr could still very well believe and support the disgusting, incendiary statements he made about Islam and Muslims while still generally supporting a person’s right to believe what they wish,” the group’s spokesman, Eric Naing, said in a statement Friday. “This kind of anti-Muslim rhetoric is dangerous.”

Sweeney, 62, was first elected to the state Senate in 2001, defeating a longtime Republican incumbent, and has been state Senate president since 2010. He has easily won his reelection bids, often by double digits, and is widely considered one of the most powerful Democrats in the state.

In 2016, he considered a run for governor but announced that he would instead seek reelection to the state Senate, citing Murphy’s success at consolidating support among influential state Democrats.

State senators in New Jersey are elected on a “2-4-4” cycle, with a two-year term at the beginning of each decade followed by two four-year terms, meaning that Durr will be up for reelection in 2023.

In his campaign appearances, Durr frequently argued that Murphy and other state Democrats had stripped residents of their rights by imposing an array of restrictions during the pandemic.

“Our legislature sat by and allowed this to take place without one word out of the Senate president or the speaker,” Durr told a conservative YouTube interviewer shortly before the election. “They forfeited any right to reelection.”

New Jersey’s 3rd state Senate District sits at the far-southwest part of the state. It includes all of Salem County and parts of Cumberland and Gloucester counties.

Despite the shock waves that Durr’s win sent across the political landscape, there have been signs in recent years that the area — and much of South Jersey — is tilting further to the right.

Rep. Jeff Van Drew, whose congressional district includes much of Sweeney’s state Senate district, was elected as a Democrat in 2018 but announced a year later that he was joining the Republican Party, in large part due to his opposition to President Donald Trump’s impeachment.

Trump later headlined a campaign rally for Van Drew in the state, and the lawmaker went on to win reelection in 2020, defeating Democrat Amy Kennedy by six percentage points.

President Barack Obama won Van Drew’s district by eight percentage points in 2012, but Trump won the district in 2016 and 2020.

Amy B Wang, David Weigel and Paul Kane contributed to this report.