On January 6th, Edward Durfee donned a radio earpiece and an “Oath Keepers New Jersey” cap as he worked a security detail outside the U.S. Capitol for the far-right Oath Keepers, whose members are now fingered by the feds for conspiring to violently stop the Electoral College vote count that would certify Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 election.
Three months later, Durfee filed paperwork to be the Republican candidate for the state Assembly back home in New Jersey—and he was backed by the Bergen County Republican Organization, the official GOP chapter in the state’s most populous county.
Durfee, a 66-year-old IT consultant from Northvale, is a long-shot Republican candidate in an overwhelmingly Democratic district. But his candidacy, first reported last week by Politico New Jersey, points to a crossroads facing Garden State Republicans. Although county Republicans are putting him on the ballot underneath the gubernatorial nominee, the front-runner for that nomination, former Assemblyman Jack Ciatterelli, is distancing himself from Durfee. When told of Durfee’s activities on January 6th, campaign communications director Stami Williams said: “Jack believes anyone who stormed the Capitol on January 6 should be held fully accountable for their actions by a court of law, and certainly would not support anyone who participated in the insurrection running for office as a Republican.”
A dozen purported Oath Keepers have been arrested for offenses that include “conspiracy,” which means prosecutors are making a case that some Oath Keepers organized and planned the storming of the Capitol, and weren’t just caught up in the moment. The Oath Keepers have become a face of the January 6th riots. The group is made up of former and current police officers and members of the military driven by a belief that political leaders are plotting to take their rights away. The group gets its name from the “oath” they take to protect the country from enemies foreign and domestic.
Listen to Matt Katz’s report on WNYC:
Durfee, who has been an Oath Keeper since the group’s inception in 2009, is not charged with a crime, and he denied “storming” or even entering the building. Video and photographs taken that day and obtained by Gothamist/WNYC from the online investigators at Capitol Terrorists Exposers, which works with news outlets to identify those at the rally and riot, back up Durfee’s story. They show him milling about with Oath Keeper leaders in front of the Capitol and at the entrance to the building, but he was not part of a group of Oath Keepers who dressed in tactical gear and allegedly entered the building in formation.
“The onus was to make enough noise so that Congress knew that we were in D.C., because we wanted some results,” Durfee said in an interview. The results he wanted? Overturning the election, which he said was fraudulently given to President Biden. That claim has been debunked by even Republican election officials as a conspiracy theory.
According to another video provided by Capitol Terrorists Exposers, Durfee has spent time with the top leaders of the Oath Keepers: Stewart Rhodes, the group’s founder who is now under scrutiny for his role in the January 6th riot, and Roberto Minuta, a former New Jersey resident charged with conspiracy in the aftermath of the attack.
How New Jersey Republicans handle Durfee’s candidacy gets to larger questions facing the party. The state GOP has been out of power in the legislature for nearly 20 years and only holds two of 12 congressional seats. All county offices in Bergen County, once a state bellwether, are Democratic. Democrat Governor Phil Murphy is running for reelection with approval ratings that regularly poll around 60 percent, and former President Donald Trump, looming shadow and all, could be summering once again at his golf course in Bedminster. Do local Republicans now double-down on MAGA in an endorsement of the Trump takeover of the party? Or do they return to the moderate roots that brought them gubernatorial election victories, from the affable Tom Kean Sr. to the bipartisan deal-maker Chris Christie?
For Jon Bramnick, the state Assembly minority leader and an outspoken anti-Trump Republican, putting Oath Keepers on the ballot as Republicans is “a path to failure, and a path to being permanently in the minority.” Bramnick himself shook off a threat from Trump apparatchiks who demanded he publicly apologize to Trump for past criticism or they’d run against him. Bramnick refused, and defeated two Trump conservatives and a Democrat to win reelection. “It was [my] proudest moment, because I stood up to the nonsense of Donald Trump,” he said.
Still, Bramnick decided not to run for governor this year because he didn’t think he could survive a Republican primary against one or more MAGA candidates. Then January 6th happened. Now, he thinks, he would have a better chance at winning a primary as a moderate. “I think that that action was detrimental to those who thought that the rhetoric of Donald Trump was not dangerous,” Bramnick said. “I believed it was, and I believe that changed the opinions of many people.”
Durfee denied that Oath Keepers are a militia, and characterized the organization as a charitable group that simply seeks to “promote the Constitution.” He said they have been unfairly maligned by the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center as anti-government extremists. “We’re not out in the field having maneuvers and getting ready for tomorrow’s Armageddon, you know what I mean?” he said.
Durfee is a ham radio operator who claimed to use those skills on January 6th to protect a pro-Trump group (called “Asians For Trump” or “Latinos For Trump”—he didn’t remember which) as they moved from Union Station to the Capitol building. “I got my radio on the right channel so I could talk to other guys on the detail,” he said, adding that at one point he got a “taste” of pepper spray.
On the radio, he said he heard that antifa—anti-fascists who face off against militias and white supremacists online and at protests—was attacking the Capitol. That contradicts the findings of the FBI, which has blamed the violence on right-wing activists.
“The FBI can say all they want, but the proof is there’s no proof that we were there as a group with a concerted effort to overthrow our government during a democratic process,” Durfee said.
Homeland security officials are nonetheless keeping a watch on the Oath Keepers. In a statement to Gothamist/WNYC, the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness said while the agency does not classify groups as “extremists,” the Oath Keepers maintain a presence in New Jersey and “some individuals affiliated with the organization have advocated for violence.”
That, then, begs the question about Durfee’s support from the Republican party in New Jersey. Bergen County Republican Chairman Jack Zisa told Politico New Jersey that it was Durfee’s First Amendment right to run as a Republican. But a former county chairman, Bob Yudin, said Zisa could have denied Durfee the ability to run on the party’s official Republican line on the ballot. “Does that mean if a Nazi followed the procedure and won [Zisa] would give a Nazi the line?” Yudin asked.
Durfee is running in the 37th district, which includes Teaneck and Hackensack, and where a Republican hasn’t been elected to the legislature in decades. Durfee has two running mates, one of whom—state senate candidate Michael Koontz—posted this week on Facebook that Democrats are evil and plotting population control, and shared a video that that alleged the U.S. government is “run by child sex traffickers.” Koontz also says the election was fraudulent.
Jeanette Hoffman, a veteran GOP operative in the state, said in non-competitive races, county and state party leaders have trouble recruiting competitive contenders, so they will sometimes end up running fringe candidates. “Because who really wants to waste their time and their energy and their money to get 10, 15 percent of the vote?” she said. In the end, she said, “this is not a practical problem—you’re not going to have an Oath Keeper representing New Jersey Republicans in the legislature.”
The Democratic slate in the 37th district is also having its share of controversy, with one Democratic assembly candidate dropping out of the race after she was accused of anti-Semitism when it was revealed she called for a boycott of businesses apparently owned by Jews in Teaneck.
Durfee served in the Marines in the early 1970s but did not see combat, he said. In the interview, he expressed some traditional conservative views, like an aversion to taxes and funding for immigrants. He also said he opposed what he described as the teaching of “deviant sex” to schoolchildren.
A former Republican chairman of his town, Durfee has run for office before and courted controversy through the years. In 2016, former Congressman Scott Garrett was criticized for attending a fundraiser hosted by Durfee. Durfee was soliciting money for the American Bedrock Foundation, which funded Oath Keepers programs.
Congressman Josh Gottheimer, a Democrat, defeated Garrett in that race and now represents Durfee’s district. Asked about Durfee’s candidacy, Gottheimer said in a statement: “Following the threat warnings from the FBI, we should have zero tolerance for Oath Keepers or any domestic terrorist groups in our communities and certainly in any elected office. They present a clear and present danger to law enforcement, our neighborhoods, and our families.”
Last year, Durfee unsuccessfully ran for borough council in Northvale, where his opponents slammed him for his Oath Keepers affiliation.
This year Durfee is running without the benefit of getting his message out via Facebook and Twitter; he said that he was booted off both platforms due to his affiliation with the Oath Keepers. The group’s chapter in New Jersey, where he’s the North Jersey regional director, doesn’t have many members, he said, but they do attend protests, including in New York City, to work security and protect people from antifa.
“All I’m doing is I’m exercising my constitutional right to assembly,” he said. “It’s not like I’m a member of some, you know, domestic terrorist group, like they want to try to say.”