Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) survived a multimillion-dollar onslaught from the state’s largest teachers union and defeated a well-funded Republican challenger by an 18-point margin on Tuesday.
It was the most expensive legislative race in state history, nearing $20 million in total spending, and Sweeney ended up winning a sixth term with 59 percent of the vote to 41 percent for Republican Fran Grenier, according to the Associated Press. He already has the caucus votes for another two-year term as Senate president.
Democrats won a string of victories in races in New Jersey and across the country on Tuesday, but Sweeney’s battle was a sharp reminder of the unrest and division in the left wing. Sweeney for eight years has been the most powerful Democrat in state government. But after years of seeing Democrats cut deals with Gov. Chris Christie, the New Jersey Education Association badly wanted Sweeney gone.
The TV airwaves in the Philadelphia market, which covers Sweeney’s 3rd legislative district, were flooded for months with attack ads funded by dueling outside groups acting as proxies for Sweeney and the NJEA. Spending hit the $15.8 million mark as of Oct. 27, and campaign finance regulators have predicted the race could reach the $20 million mark when the final figures are tallied.
The teachers union spent at least $4.5 million on attack ads labeling Sweeney as a “pay-to-play” politician more interested in advancing Christie’s agenda than liberal priorities. Sweeney’s allies lashed out at the union, putting a spotlight on the hefty salaries and benefits collected by the top brass and balking at their choice to endorse Grenier, a Republican aligned with Christie and President Trump.
“The voters stayed focused on the issues of importance to their families, their communities and their future, and I have remained focused on the progress and achievements that will make their lives better and improve opportunities for their children,” Sweeney said in a statement. “I am always ready to fight for their best interests.”
The NJEA complained that Sweeney partnered with Christie in 2011 to cut public-worker benefits and then reneged on a promised ballot question in 2016 to guarantee pension funding. Despite having Democrats running the Legislature, schools received $9 billion less in funding over eight years than they were due under state law, and the teachers’ retirement fund was in the worst shape of all in New Jersey’s pension system.
The effort to knock out Sweeney forced Democrats to spend millions of dollars on his district that could have been spent on other competitive races across New Jersey. While Democrats flipped seats in the 7th and 11th districts, they lost a seat to Assemblyman Chris Brown (R-Atlantic) in what was the second-most expensive legislative race in the 2nd district.
“We knew that going in it was going to be a long shot, but we also knew that our members demanded that we let Steve Sweeney and everyone else know that if you betray us, we’re going to punch back,” NJEA President Marie Blistan said Tuesday night at Governor-elect Phil Murphy’s victory party in Asbury Park.
Blistan declined to speculate whether Sweeney would seek revenge on the union, but said, “I have always found, as a classroom teacher, that if you live your life on facts, on truths and on fairness, things work out.”
The NJEA was a strong supporter of Murphy’s, who was elected the 56th governor of New Jersey. Murphy mostly avoided the battle between the union and Sweeney, and some Democrats privately criticized him for staying silent as Sweeney faced a barrage of attacks.
Brendan Gill, Murphy’s campaign manager, said speculation about a strain between Murphy and Sweeney “couldn’t be further from the truth.” To get his ambitious agenda through the Legislature, Murphy will need to make a partner out of Sweeney.
“The first campaign stop that Phil did today was with Senate President Sweeney,” Gill said in Asbury Park. “And if you listen to what was said at that event, and the relationship that they built, the relationship is fantastic. They’ve worked well together. They’ve campaigned together. Phil has said from Day One that he was committed to seeing the Senate president re-elected.”
Sweeney represents the 3rd district, which includes parts of Cumberland and Gloucester counties and all of Salem County. Voters there went for Trump in last year’s election. But it was a good night for the Senate president, who not only withstood the barrage of attacks, but also found the resources to increase his majority in the 40-member chamber from 24 to 25 seats.
On Wednesday morning, he vowed to immediately pass a bill Murphy wants to hike taxes on millionaires to round up more money for schools.