Senate President Steve Sweeney conceded his loss to Republican Ed Durr Wednesday, admitting a defeat that shocked New Jersey's political world and ended the legislative career of Trenton's most powerful lawmaker.
“All votes have been fairly counted, and I, of course, accept the results," an emotional Sweeney said during a brief press conference at the New Jersey Statehouse Wednesday afternoon. “I want to congratulate Mr. Durr and wish him the best of luck."
Sweeney (D-Gloucester), the longest serving Senate president in New Jersey's history, ran about 2,200 votes behind Durr, a relative political unknown who previously mounted a failed independent campaign for Assembly and is now a celebrity in Republican circles.
Sweeney ruled out seeking a recount. It's exceedingly unlikely such an effort would do much to change the result of the race.
The incumbent blamed his loss on a Republican wave, noting about 11,000 more votes were cast in the 3rd District this year than in 2017, when the Senate president last won re-election. Sweeney's last Republican challenger won more 22,336 votes. Durr's count stands at 33,663.
Margins were tighter than expected in the gubernatorial race and in a handful of competitive districts, with Republican candidates generally exceeding expectations. The GOP captured a few legislative seats from Democrats, besides Sweeney's.
Despite his loss, Sweeney said he will remain active in state politics.
“I will be speaking from a different podium, but I promise you: I will be just as loud and just as forceful a voice for change," he said during the press conference, which lasted for about eight minutes.
Sweeney's tenure saw him become a polarizing force in New Jersey politics, at once hailed by members and observers for his ability to corral the Senate and derided by upstart political forces in the state over a belief that he stood in the way of their progressive policy efforts.
Durr's victory upended the Senate's leadership structure, setting off a brief contest among the chamber's Democrats that already appears resolved. The caucus is set to hold leadership elections on Friday, and Union County Sen. Nicholas Scutari is expected to succeed Sweeney as Senate president.
It's not clear what form Sweeney's continued involvement will take. He will keep his spot on the legislative redistricting commission, a position that could give him the ability to redraw the 3rd District's lines to be more favorable for a repeat campaign in 2023. A collection of towns in Gloucester, Salem, and Cumberland counties, the 3rd District has about 16,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans, but unaffiliated voters outnumber both.
Sweeney declined to say whether he would seek re-election, but he did not rule out a bid for his seat in 2023. The Senate president has also been raised as a possible gubernatorial candidate in 2025.
“What I said is I'm not going away. I don't say what I'm doing, but I can tell you something: I've been a believer in making New Jersey affordable for a long time," he said. “I've been the one that has been through battles over pension and health care costs for a long time."
The Senate president presented a somber face Wednesday, listing a series of priorities and policy accomplishments that included boosted funding for extraordinary special education aid, a $15 minimum wage, earned sick and family leave, bail reform, and marijuana legalization, among numerous others.
He also repeatedly raised affordability as an issue, promising to advocate for lower costs even after he leaves office on Jan. 11, mentioning specifically the cost of living for young adults, working families, and retirees.
“I plan to remain fully involved in public affairs in New Jersey. I will be speaking out for fiscal responsibility and reform," he said. “I will be a strong voice for unity, for economic opportunity, and for competitiveness and growth."
Democrats saw their worst legislative losses in years last week. They're expected to lose one seat in the Senate (the GOP flipped two seats in that chamber and Democrats flipped one), and between four and six seats in the Assembly, including those held by Sweeney's running mates, Assemblymen Adam Taliaferro and John Burzichelli, who chairs the Assembly Appropriations Committee.
Democrats lost both Assembly seats in the 2nd District and Assemblywoman Joann Downey and Assemblyman Eric Houghtaling narrowly trail their Republican challengers in the 11th with few votes left uncounted.
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