It is not hyperbole to say that Edward Durr, a 58-year-old truck driver from New Jersey, just pulled off one of the biggest political upsets in American history.
With a bare-bones campaign that reportedly cost less than $6,000 (some earlier reports claimed that Durr spent just $153 on the race, but Durr later clarified that was not a full accounting), Durr ousted New Jersey Senate President Steve Sweeney (D–West Deptford) in Tuesday's election. After previously calling the race for Sweeney and then withdrawing that call, the Associated Press called the race for Durr on Thursday morning. He has a lead of over 2,000 votes with 99 percent of precincts reporting.
Sweeney, who was seeking a seventh term in the Senate, is widely regarded as a kingpin in New Jersey politics and one of the most powerful men in the state. He has been president of the state Senate since 2010, the longest tenure in state history. He was expected to be a front-runner in the 2025 gubernatorial race and this year's election was "never considered more than an afterthought," according to NJ.com. After all, Sweeney had survived one of the most expensive legislative races in American history in 2017—when teachers unions had bucked their usual political alignment to spend heavily in support of Sweeney's Republican challenger.
But Sweeney was no match for Durr, a political novice who drives a delivery truck for a regional chain of furniture stores.
"I don't know if I truly am fearless or stupid. Because who in their right mind would take on a person with that kind of power and clout?" Durr told NJ.com. "But his power, his clout, did not scare me."
If that's not the most fundamentally American political statement, I don't know what is.
Durr's homemade campaign ads featured him climbing down from his trucking rig, driving a motorcycle, and promising to support cutting taxes. The production value of his online ads was possibly even lower. It didn't matter, because he got more votes than the polished, besuited Sweeney.
Hello NJ, I am Edward Durr, the Republican senate candidate for legislative district 3. I'm a father of 3 & grandfather of 6. Life long resident of NJ. Not seeking power or fame, only give the people better representation. Lower taxes! Transparency! @nj1015 @1210WPHT @GlouCoGOP pic.twitter.com/YiOCzFjtSw
— Edward Durr (@edwarddurr1) July 23, 2021
It's dangerous to make sweeping conclusions about state legislative races, which by their nature are fundamentally local affairs even in an age when political narratives are routinely nationalized. Durr's victory could be a startling signal that residents of reliably blue southwestern New Jersey are fed up with Democratic leadership in Washington, D.C., and Trenton. More likely, it's part of an ongoing backlash against mask mandates, COVID-19 lockdowns, and other destructive policies that emerged during the pandemic. In his ads and other public comments, Durr stressed that Sweeney did not do enough to push back against Gov. Phil Murphy's COVID-19 policies. (Murphy, a Democrat, narrowly won reelection this week in a closer-than-expected race.)
"You have the debacle of unemployment. The masking of the kids in school. You have Senator Sweeney trying to take away peoples' [sic] medical freedom rights," Durr told Politico. He went on to say that he sees himself as a "constitutional conservative" and that he became interested in politics after trying to navigate New Jersey's strict gun control laws in order to secure a concealed carry permit.
Here's one conclusion you can decisively draw about Durr's incredible upset: It wasn't about money. Durr's victory is another reminder that for all the pearl clutching about money in politics, contemporary American campaigns are less determined by big piles of cash—to pay for massive ad blitzes, expensive consultants, and the like—than ever. Social media and the internet have leveled the playing field, allowing old-school retail politics to evolve in new ways. You can now take down one of the most powerful men in state politics with a campaign ad filmed on an iPhone.
Durr just did it.