TRENTON, N.J. — It took three decades for Democratic power broker George Norcross to build one of the most effective and influential political machines in the country. It took one night for the operation to lose its biggest public figure.
The insurance executive, who has never held elected office, had seized near-absolute control over elections in much of southern New Jersey. He funneled seemingly endless campaign cash to support his allies and crush his foes. His allies won every Democratic legislative seat south of Trenton.
It all put Norcross and his hand-picked state Senate president, childhood friend Steve Sweeney, in a position to drive virtually every major policy decision in the state, from culling public worker benefits to creating a massive tax incentive program that doled out billions. Their partnership with former Gov. Chris Christie made the Republican’s early success possible.
News of a federal wiretap didn’t hurt Norcross’ clout. Neither did Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy, an ally of public sector unions who hired lawyers to dig deeply into Norcross’ use of the state’s tax incentives. Nor did progressive efforts to disrupt Norcross’ power in the region’s principal city of Camden or its suburbs.
Instead, the biggest hit to the power of Norcross came this month, when a truck driver who spent $10,000 on his campaign defeated Sweeney. It was one of the biggest political upsets in New Jersey history and the biggest in the nation this year — a dark omen for Democrats worried about the 2022 midterms. That night, South Jersey Democrats also lost two of their six state Senate seats and four of their 12 state Assembly seats, accounting for most of the Democratic Party’s losses in New Jersey, where Murphy stumbled to a narrow, 3-point reelection victory.
Now, Trenton insiders are looking slack-jawed at the diminishment of South Jersey Democrats’ dominance. Sweeney, Norcross and their machine fell victim to a blue collar revolt where the party’s decades-long cultivation of conservative-leaning voters and adherence to flawed internal polling failed to predict or resist a Republican wave.
“The arithmetic is undeniable in the fact that we’ve lost seats in the southern region,” said state Assemblymember John Burzichelli (D-Gloucester), a 19-year incumbent in Sweeney’s district who also lost his seat this month. “I think that speaks for itself.”
The outcome says something important about Democratic chances in the suburbs ahead of next year, when the country will hold 36 governors races on top of congressional elections. The same red wave that handed Sweeney his loss and put Glenn Youngkin in the Virginia governor’s mansion did less damage to Democrats in the more white-collar suburbs in the northern half of New Jersey. As the Democrats in South Jersey also sustained losses at the local level, losing several county offices in the region, Democrats in the north flipped one Senate seat and lost just one Assembly seat. Murphy appeared to do better in some of those areas, too.
That suggests the Republican resurgence of 2021 is not a reversal of the 2018 midterms, when Democrats made remarkable strides in suburbs across the country — including in New Jersey. Affluent and middle-class suburbs and exurbs that turned from purple to blue three years ago may still be Democratic. It’s in more blue-collar communities, places that already backed Donald Trump, where voters who had supported moderate Democrats for years decided to vote Republican this time around.
Here in Trenton, the impact is already being felt: While South Jersey Democrats still compromise a substantial voting bloc in the state Legislature, January will be the first time in 16 years that one of their own does not preside at the top of either the General Assembly or state Senate.
With Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin set to stay in place and state Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D-Union) in line to replace Sweeney, it’s a political sea change. Sweeney had worked hand-in-hand with Christie to pare down pensions for new public workers and cut health benefits. Together, they took over struggling Atlantic City and overhauled its finances, restructured South Jersey’s university system and designed a tax credit system that directed millions to Camden.
Prior the pandemic, Sweeney’s relationship with Murphy was strained at the best of times, while the two engaged in open political warfare during the worst times — something that almost led to a government shutdown as they fought over Murphy’s first budget. Scutari’s rise to power owes more to the now-larger Democratic delegation in Middlesex County, in Central Jersey, whose priorities will be different than those of South Jersey Democrats.
“We’ve got to get away from those years when Mr. Norcross and Mr. Christie were an oversized influence,” said state Sen. Richard Codey (D-Essex), whom Sweeney ousted as senate president 12 years ago.
How did it happen? In a somber concession announcement Wednesday, Sweeney blamed a “red wave.” Norcross, in an interview with POLITICO shortly after the election, blamed a national anti-Democratic mood defined by the party’s progressive wing. “Voters massively rejected that notion, which was largely defined from the top in Washington, then down through New Jersey,” he said.
Steve Kush, a Republican consultant who has spent years running unsuccessful legislative candidates against the South Jersey Democratic machine — and, in 2003, nearly came to blows with now-congressman Donald Norcross, George’s brother — referred back to the man who beat Sweeney: Edward Durr.
“Ed Durr said it best. ‘Two words: Phil Murphy,’” said Kush, who helped Durr’s longshot campaign. Kush said he believes that a general disenchantment with the South Jersey Democrats’ patronage machine may have also played a role. “There’s a lot of folks with jobs in the county government who feel they have to be loyal to the machine. None of them will ever say it out loud. But they tell you. ‘I’m a Democrat because I have a job,’” he said.
The Murphy campaign, in a memo meant for public consumption, blamed the national environment for the close result in the governor’s race, in which Murphy beat Republican Jack Ciattarelli by about 75,000 votes. The memo credited a “smart, aggressive turnout strategy” of vote-by-mail and early voting that enabled it to “deliver a victory in the face of historic New Jersey voting patterns, strong GOP turnout, and a challenging national environment for the Democratic Party.” And progressives who detest the South Jersey Democratic machine celebrated Sweeney’s defeat — albeit to a conservative who had a history of anti-Muslim social media posts for which he’s since apologized.
“There is a dent in the machine. There’s an opening — a small little hole — and if you keep pushing it, the hole keeps getting bigger and bigger,” said Ronsha Dickerson, a Camden activist and Norcross critic who said she left the Democratic Party because she “lost faith” in it but still votes that way.
There have been signs of Democratic vulnerabilities in South Jersey for years. Trump, for instance, narrowly won Sweeney’s district in 2016 and 2020.
Democrats’ pains in South Jersey weren’t felt as acutely further north, though a couple Democratic North Jersey counties — Bergen and Passaic, for instance — were far closer than expected, with Murphy winning them by a relatively narrow margin.
Ironically, though, it may have been a backlash against Murphy by rural and suburban blue collar South Jersey voters that helped doom Sweeney and the other South Jersey Democrats.
”[Murphy] dragged the party so far left and I think the voter perception was [South Jersey Democrats] didn’t do enough to stop him,” said Chris Russell, a Ciattarelli campaign consultant. “Ultimately, I think voters made a decision that, if they’re not going to stand up to him and get in his way, why have him? They’re going to elect Republicans.”
In 2017, Murphy won Gloucester County, Sweeney’s home county, by about 13 points. In 2021, he lost it by 10. That result wasn’t driven by Murphy getting less votes — he got about 2,600 more than he did four years ago — but by Ciattarelli getting 22,500 more votes than the last Republican gubernatorial candidate, Kim Guadagno.
Sweeney got only a few hundred less votes accross his district than he did in 2017, according to the latest tally. But Durr got over 11,000 more votes than Sweeney’s Republican challenger, Fran Grenier, did four years ago. That’s despite the fact that the New Jersey Education Association, the state’s largest public sector union, spent over $5 million to boost Grenier’s candidacy as it feuded with Sweeney over pension contributions.
South Jersey Democrats built their dominance of the region by engaging with Republicans, independents and moderate Democrats, a less blue voting base than up north, without Democratic powerhouses like Essex and Hudson counties. But Democrats have also made inroads in central and northern New Jersey’s suburbs. In once-solidly Republican Somerset County — a more affluent suburban area of Central Jersey that’s home to Ciattarelli as well as former Republican Gov. Christie Whitman — Murphy did better than he did in 2017, and Democrats picked up a state Senate seat that had been held by a Republican for decades.
“It doesn’t bode well for the south,” Somerset County Democratic Chair Peg Schaffer said. “But we didn’t anticipate this, that the Republican vote down there was very significant. It’s very conservative down there and we have a progressive governor.”
In North Jersey’s wealthy Morris County, which used to be one of the biggest Republican vote plurality producers in the state, Ciattarelli netted 21,000 more votes than Murphy — less than half of what Christie, a Morris County resident, netted over Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine in 2009.
“Democrats can’t count on Cumberland, Salem or Gloucester anymore,” said Cook Political Report Editor Dave Wasserman, a New Jersey native, referring to the three counties in Sweeney’s district. “Their future is in Somerset and Morris Counties.”
“We’re talking about a long-term realignment in voters’ support for the parties,” he said.
But Republicans, having seen Norcross raise millions of dollars to spend against their candidates by hosting a couple fundraisers, aren’t celebrating their impending doom.
“Knowing George Norcorss the way I know George Norcross, what it means is he’s going to raise even more money and come at us even harder,” Kush said. “It means we better hunker down.”