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How a powerful New Jersey Senate president lost his seat to an unknown truck driver

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Today in New Jersey, the Republican challenger for governor has conceded the race to Democratic incumbent Phil Murphy. But the second-most powerful Democrat in the state, the president of the state Senate, was toppled by an unknown truck driver with a sordid history of offensive tweets. From member station WNYC, Nancy Solomon reports on the race that turned out to be the real stunner in New Jersey.

NANCY SOLOMON, BYLINE: Republican Edward Durr drives a furniture delivery truck for work and a Harley for fun. He only spent a few thousand dollars on the race. Standing outside his small blue house, he says he was utterly surprised.

EDWARD DURR: It didn't happen because of me. I'm nobody. I'm absolutely nobody. I'm just a simple guy. It was the people.

SOLOMON: That nobody and a surge of Republican voters in South Jersey took down Steve Sweeney, a barrel-chested bear of a man who ruled the state Senate for 12 years. He was the top lieutenant for the most powerful Democratic Party boss in New Jersey, if not the whole country. George Norcross runs a political machine that had the largest voting bloc in the state legislature, and Sweeney kept them in line.

SUE ALTMAN: I think Steve Sweeney lost mostly because the South Jersey machine did not run a campaign. They didn't spend any money. They didn't try.

SOLOMON: Sue Altman is director of New Jersey Working Families Alliance. She lives in Camden, the heart of the Norcross empire, and she's been a thorn in his side. Norcross and Sweeney worked closely with Republican Governor Chris Christie and later blocked many initiatives of the progressive Governor Phil Murphy.

ALTMAN: They're not super enthusiastic about Murphy's second term. We know based on their past history that they work just fine, thank you very much, with Republican governors.

SOLOMON: A week before the election, Sweeney said he thought Murphy's double-digit lead was going to be much smaller. But Elizabeth Trinidad, a Democratic voter and a lawyer in Sweeney's district, says Sweeney didn't seem concerned about his own re-election.

ELIZABETH TRINIDAD: There was no getting-out-the-vote presence. It would have been noticeable.

SOLOMON: No door knocking, few lawn signs and nary a robocall. They didn't even publicize something opposition researchers would have readily found about the Republican truck driver - a history of racist and Islamophobic posts on Twitter. But Trinidad says without Donald Trump on the ballot and the governor leading by double digits in the polls, Democrats had less reason to vote.

TRINIDAD: You know, it's not like I've run into people, you know, at the post office or at the grocery store and everybody's complaining about Stephen Sweeney. That's not the case.

SOLOMON: But Republicans were motivated. Party turnout in the district was way up. Republican operative Steve Kush worked in the district.

STEVE KUSH: Oh, I can sum this up in four words - Phil Murphy, Joe Biden.

SOLOMON: Sweeney lost by a little more than 2,000 votes. Norcross told a few newspapers that the losses show Governor Murphy and the Democratic Party are too far to the left. But locals in South Jersey, like Logan Township Mayor Frank Minor, say voters are fed up.

FRANK MINOR: We want people that are not pledging fealty to the machine anymore but people who pledge fealty to the interests and the concerns of the people who are Democrats in this region.

SOLOMON: The new Republican state Senator Ed Durr will be a backbencher in the minority party. And today, Democrats chose their next Senate president, but this time, Governor Phil Murphy was at the table. And that could mean he'll pivot from near defeat to a much stronger alliance in the legislature. And that spells trouble for the Norcross machine.

For NPR News, I'm Nancy Solomon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.