TRENTON, N.J. — New Jersey Senate president Steve Sweeney was near the peak of his power before a virtually-unknown Republican, Ed Durr, left tire tracks across his political career.
The loss was stunning. But Sweeney won’t go quietly.
He’s pushing big bills in his final days in office. He’s planning to open a think tank. And, privately, he’s telling power players that he will run for governor in 2025.
“I won’t be a senator,” Sweeney said in an interview. “But that doesn’t mean I can’t have a voice.”
Sweeney’s position is foreign to him. The Democrat had ruled Trenton for a dozen years. He gave Chris Christie his earliest policy wins and fought a political civil war with Gov. Phil Murphy.
Then Durr, a truck driver who barely spent any money on his campaign, narrowly defeated Sweeney in November — one of the biggest political upsets in New Jersey history.
In another state, a run for governor might seem like a pipe dream after such a bitter loss. But New Jersey political insiders aren’t laughing off the idea.
Sweeney has the backing of influential private sector unions, Democratic powerbroker George Norcross and strong relationships with other Democrats up and down the state. He’d even shored up his relationship with Murphy, putting an end to several years of Democratic infighting.
Sweeney’s success in moving on from what happened in November could track with what happens this year, when 36 governors, every House member and much of the Senate are on the ballot. It will also offer a test of whether moderate Democrats like Sweeney, who represents a mostly blue-collar district in southern New Jersey, could provide a path for the party to rebuild in formerly blue communities that turned red with Donald Trump’s election.
Sweeney’s loss reflects a problem Democrats are facing all over the country: Voter anger fueled by culture wars and backlash to Covid restrictions is causing problems for them in corners they weren’t expecting, as Republican voters have been turning out in droves. In the months since his loss, Sweeney and his allies have tried to make sense of how a constituency he so easily won over four years prior voted him out of office.
“It’s life, it’s reality. I think I’ve done the best I can possibly do,” Sweeney said in an interview. “People are just angry right now. Very angry. This country is a disaster, unfortunately. It is really sad. We’re the greatest country in the world. And all it’s about now is about stopping the other side of trying to get something done.”
On an election night with plenty of troubling signs for Democrats, Sweeney’s loss — and the losses of his two running mates in the state Assembly — was the most shocking in the country. More shocking even than Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy’s three-point win over Republican Jack Ciattarelli, when polls months earlier predicted a landslide. All of it was seen as an omen for this year’s midterm elections.
Sweeney’s internal polling showed him ahead by double digits, four years after he beat back a Republican who had the support of the state’s largest teachers union in what was likely the most expensive state legislative race in U.S. history. This race, by contrast, escaped even the notice of state Republicans.
“There were a lot of little things that simply added up and manifested themselves in a collective vote of anger,” said Assemblymember John Burzichelli (D-Gloucester), a running mate of Sweeney’s who lost the seat he held for 20 years. “It just bubbled up organically among people who were mad at Murphy for different reasons, mad at President Biden for different reasons, some still angry that the previous presidential election didn’t go Trump’s way. You stir all that together and you have motivation.”
Sweeney said he had two pollsters: one had him winning his district by 15 points, and Murphy losing the district by 7 or 8 points. The other pollster had him winning by 19, and Murphy losing by 10. Sweeney realized things had taken a turn when the turnout in his Republican-heavy district came in strong.
“We heard there was a large turnout in the vote, and I’m thinking ‘that can’t be good, honestly,’” he said.
At the end of the day, Sweeney says he thinks he served his people. Under his tenure they’ve built ports in his district and created jobs, grown a university, and made major tax policy changes that the voters wanted, such as lowering the retirement income tax and eliminating the estate tax.
He thinks the numbers reflect that. Ultimately, Sweeney lost in his district by 3 points. Murphy lost by 15.
“South Jersey always loves saying we don’t get our share. They got their share with me,” Sweeney said of the region of the state he represents. “It was a tidal wave. It was a red tidal wave, no way to explain it.”
Now, Sweeney is wrapping up the two-year legislative session with some big ticket items: A bill that writes abortion rights into law in case the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, a bill codifying same sex marriage and legislation that gives tax breaks to Atlantic City casinos, an incendiary subject in Trenton.
He’ll close out the session, and his two decades as a senator, on Tuesday.
Sweeney, who is 62, has immediate plans for what’s next: creating a public policy think tank. He is in talks with universities and anticipates rolling out the project in the coming months. Sweeney wants the think tank to be an incubator for policy ideas, and will focus on how to make New Jersey more affordable.
Starting a think tank is also a tried and true way New Jersey politicians keep themselves relevant while not officially running for office. Before Murphy formally announced he was running for governor, he set up a think tank called New Start New Jersey that helped him lay the groundwork for a campaign.
Sweeney, for the record, denies he has said he’s running for governor and instead says he is keeping his options open, and that includes another state Senate run. But a source said in December that Sweeney had told dozens of private labor leaders he was preparing for the Democratic gubernatorial primary in 2025, when Murphy will term out.
“This is classic failing upwards,” Sue Altman, executive director of the New Jersey Working Families Alliance and one of Sweeney’s fiercest critics, said of the senator’s gubernatorial prospects. “Only in New Jersey, only among the politically-connected can a white man with low name recognition who lost in a national embarrassment of a race be even permitted to even think about running for higher office.”