For volunteers in a political campaign, the action usually begins in small residential neighborhoods, knocking on doors, passing out leaflets to suburbanites trying to hide their irritation at having to open the door. We never made it out of the parking lot.
Five of us had been dropped off from a small campaign van at a Cumberland Farms convenience store in the western Massachusetts city of Holyoke armed with stacks of “Scott Brown for Senate” bumper stickers and cardboard signs. The first car that drove by rolled down its window and a woman excitedly asked for a sign for her yard. Then another. And another. At one point, a police officer stopped at a red light on an adjacent road rolled down his window and yelled out words of support. As he promised to vote for Brown, the light turned green. The driver behind him moved to blast his horn, but thought better of it.
Ten minutes later, we ducked out of the parking lot after a tiny lady emerged from the Cumbie’s and told us off. We were six yard signs and several bumper stickers poorer.
This is the scene in Massachusetts as the election approaches to decide Ted Kennedy’s Senate successor. The energy among voters for Scott Brown is palpable, while support for Martha Coakley is tepid, at best.
I spent Saturday with four Catholic University of America College Republicans, who had bused into Holyoke to campaign for Brown. The CRs were calling the trip the “Holyoke Massacre” (megalomaniacal hyperbole is used often by most College Republicans, primarily to scare College Democrats). Throughout the day, we knocked on doors, distributed pamphlets, and were met with unprecedented welcome and requests for yard signs.
“It’s just never been like this before,” said Amanda Kohut, a CUA alumni and seasoned campaign veteran. “Even in New Jersey, they weren’t this excited.”
Life as a campaign volunteer is usually a fairly masochistic exercise. Volunteers work at least six hours knocking on doors, only to have them slammed in their faces again and again, or hear an angry denunciation of politics in general or listen to a complaint about how the campaign won’t stop personally bothering the home’s owner.
Not the case in Holyoke. Most people were enthused, telling us they couldn’t wait to vote for Brown. One man threw his door open and called out to us, asking if he could have a yard sign. A woman informed us that she wanted to “rip Martha Coakley’s face off.” Coakley seemed to have no presence in the city. I didn’t see a single Coakley yard sign the entire time I was there.
This isn’t how it should be in Holyoke, a small industrial city of 40,000 along the Connecticut River. The city was built around paper mills and is largely blue-collar. The unemployment rate is 11.1 percent, 2 percent higher than Massachusetts as a whole. In 2008, Holyoke voters pulled the lever for Obama 11,000 to 4,000.
But the stiffest reaction in this liberal stronghold was from an elderly woman who took our literature and kindly informed us she was a Democrat. Another refused to open the door, but yelled at us through the window that she was voting for Brown before shooing us away.
Back at the cabin that had been converted into campaign headquarters, young volunteers dashed about on their Blackberries while older ones expressed amazement that the next Massachusetts senator could be a Republican. The students I was with were particularly dismayed at Coakley’s suggestion that socially conservative Catholics shouldn’t work in emergency rooms. A flurry of Tweets urged Catholic University Republicans to organize against Coakley’s anti-Catholicism.
The gravity of the election wasn’t lost amidst the optimism, though. At one house, we met an elderly man whose ailing wife had watched her prescription drug bills surge. In an election where health care is a central issue, he was undecided. The health-care bill sounded like a great idea. But would it mean Medicare cuts? He liked how the Massachusetts health-care system worked. But hadn’t it only needed to insure 2 percent of residents?
It was a stark reminder of what’s at stake in Tuesday’s election.
A crowd of supporters for Scott Brown