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    New Jersey’s MAGA Cinderella faces a new test: Getting reelected when both parties want him gone

    Ed Durr’s ascension to the New Jersey state Senate could have been a movie plot.

    Durr, a blue-collar Republican truck driver whose campaign spent just $10,000, rode a wave of populist discontent in 2021 to beat Democratic Senate President Steve Sweeney, a 20-year incumbent who exercised sweeping authority as the longest-serving leader in history.

    Durr took on New Jersey’s most powerful political machine and won, becoming a cause celebre on the right and a sign of an impending midterm “red wave” that ultimately never came. He was proof that Republicans could still win in blue states even after then-President Donald Trump lost New Jersey to Joe Biden. He soon sold red “Ed the Trucker” hats that bore resemblance to Trump’s famous “Make America Great Again” cap and other memorabilia.

    But not long after Durr donned a suit and entered the Statehouse in Trenton, the TV cameras stopped following him. He soon faced the reality of his situation: He’s a backbencher in a minority party — someone with little clout and, on top of that, someone who Democrats want to work against.

    Durr now finds himself facing rivals within his own party who believe his election was a fluke, who fault him for politically-damaging social media posts that emerged after his surprise victory and who believe he’s wasted a year by focusing on culture war issues that have already proven to hurt Republicans in the post-Roe era.

    In terms of making laws, he’s accomplished little to nothing. And Democrats, of course, are plotting to take him down.

    “There are going to be certain bills of mine they’re never going to touch because they’re too conservative,” Durr, 60, acknowledged in a phone interview. “I’ve had bills that even Democrats will probably appreciate, but they won’t move them because it’s Ed Durr.”

    Since taking office, Durr has been among the top sponsors of 167 pieces of legislation — the 10th most of the state’s 40 senators. None have been signed into law, ranking him in a tie for dead last among senators who have served since the beginning of the term.

    Durr has introduced many bills that reflect right-wing causes and have near zero chance of passage. They include several measures that would severely restrict abortion access; ease New Jersey’ strict firearm carry and permitting restrictions; repeal vaccine requirements; punish educators and school districts that teach critical race theory; and a bill that would ban teaching younger students about gender identity and sexual orientation that critics called the New Jersey version of the Florida law activists have labeled “Don’t Say Gay.”

    “I didn’t have any expectations. I just knew that I wanted to get in there and be a voice for my constituents,” Durr said. “And I think I have, to be quite honest with you.”

    Democrats eye a comeback as Durr, GOP feud

    Democrats are working to oust Durr this year. Sweeney, who is considering running for governor in 2025, had been mulling whether to challenge Durr in November but reportedly will stay out of the Senate race and his old district running mate, former Assemblymember John Burzichelli, will run instead.

    As such, Durr said that he’s even gotten shunned by Democrats on his more policy-focused bills, like a measure inspired by Billy Cray, a developmentally-disabled man who died in his group home. The bill, which would allow adult group homes to give residents the choice to have electronic monitoring devices in common areas and private rooms, had been sponsored by state Sen. Fred Madden, another South Jersey Democrat, before Durr entered office.

    Durr said he asked Madden to again sign onto that bill, “and he chose not to.” The Democratic chair of the state Senate Health Committee, Joe Vitale, has refused to advance it as well, Durr said.

    “You tell me why he won’t. He’ll give you a lame excuse, but it’s clearly me,” he said.

    Vitale said he’s not blocking the bill because of Durr.

    “I told him to do the hard work. There are likely as many individuals and organizations in favor and as many opposed,” Vitale said. “I’ve asked him to do the hard work and reach out to those who don’t support the bill, work with them on potential language changes and let me know how he wants to proceed.”

    Madden also cited advocates’ opposition to the measure as the reason he chose not to sign on again, saying he’d rather stay off the bill until those issues are resolved.

    “That’s it,” Madden said. “Here we are a year later, and you’re telling me he’s claiming I won’t go on a bill because I was told not to do something? It’s just bizarre.”

    Burzichelli, who lost in 2021 to Durr’s Assembly running mates, said Durr has not reached out to the right people to be an effective senator.

    “Clearly the people who took our place have been ineffective at building relationships, ineffective at delivering anything of significance for the legislative district. And there’s no indication it will get better,” Burzichelli said.

    Burzichelli, who was chair of the influential Appropriations Committee, said he and his defeated district-mates had lined up somewhere around $1 billion in programs that were to “find their way to the district” but “that momentum stopped” with Durr’s swearing-in.

    “I’m not aware of anything they’ve gotten done,” Burzichelli said. “That’s not a harsh statement about personalities. It’s just a fact like a report card.”

    Meanwhile, Durr and one of his two former running mates, Assemblymember Beth Sawyer, have spent much of the last year feuding. Now, Sawyer is expected to run for Assembly in the Republican primary on a slate opposite Durr’s, headed up by Salem County Commissioner Mickey Ostrum. (Sawyer did not respond to a call seeking comment and Ostrum said he would hold off commenting pending a formal announcement).

    But Adam Wingate, a Republican candidate for Gloucester County commissioner in 2022, blamed Durr in part for his loss — noting Democrats tried to link him to Durr’s social media posts, including one 2020 Facebook post in which Durr said, “A woman does have a choice! Keep her legs closed.”

    “Ed’s been polarizing since day one,” Wingate said. “Just his social media presence and the way he carries himself.”

    Nevertheless, Durr has managed to secure Republican Party backing in two of his district’s three counties, which makes him the favorite for reelection.

    Durr’s brief national fame never translated to fundraising prowess, however. In the last three months of 2022, his campaign reported raising just $1,800, and he began the new year with about $35,500 in the bank. Should Burzichelli run, he’d likely be able to count on the help of multi million-dollar super PAC unofficially controlled by South Jersey Democratic power broker George Norcross.

    Durr said he’s worked hard on constituent services in the district, telling POLITICO his office has fielded calls from constituents to help navigate the bureaucracy of the Motor Vehicles Commission and Unemployment Insurance fund, both of which have had major customer service issues since the pandemic.

    “When I’m out and about throughout the district, just to have someone come up and say how good they feel that somebody’s actually listening to them and paying attention,” Durr said.

    And Durr said the district was still plagued with problems after 20 years of Democratic representation, like one town where the only place to buy food is a dollar store.

    “There are issues throughout the district that were not addressed when Sweeney was Senate president and Burzichelli was Appropriations chair,” Durr said. “To complain about our ineffectiveness given that we’ve only been in one year and are the minority seems laughable for the lack of progress they made for the 20 years they were in office.”

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