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Three area towns among most contested in US Senate race

  • Steve cummings of Middlefield shares his thoughts on the senate and presidential races Wednesday in South Hadley.<br/>JOSH KUCKENS

    Steve cummings of Middlefield shares his thoughts on the senate and presidential races Wednesday in South Hadley.
    JOSH KUCKENS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Ann Pemberton of South Hadley shares her thoughts on the senate and presidential races Wednesday.<br/>JOSH KUCKENS

    Ann Pemberton of South Hadley shares her thoughts on the senate and presidential races Wednesday.
    JOSH KUCKENS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Joe Provoda of South Hadley shares his thoughts on the senate and presidential races Wednesday.<br/>JOSH KUCKENS

    Joe Provoda of South Hadley shares his thoughts on the senate and presidential races Wednesday.
    JOSH KUCKENS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Bob Novick of Belchertown shares his thoughts on the senate and presidential races Wednesday.<br/>JOSH KUCKENS

    Bob Novick of Belchertown shares his thoughts on the senate and presidential races Wednesday.
    JOSH KUCKENS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Steve cummings of Middlefield shares his thoughts on the senate and presidential races Wednesday in South Hadley.<br/>JOSH KUCKENS
  • Ann Pemberton of South Hadley shares her thoughts on the senate and presidential races Wednesday.<br/>JOSH KUCKENS
  • Joe Provoda of South Hadley shares his thoughts on the senate and presidential races Wednesday.<br/>JOSH KUCKENS
  • Bob Novick of Belchertown shares his thoughts on the senate and presidential races Wednesday.<br/>JOSH KUCKENS

In the presidential election, swing states like Florida or Ohio may well decide the contest between President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. In the Massachusetts race for the U.S. Senate, swing towns may play that same role.

With polls showing Republican U.S. Sen. Scott Brown and Democratic challenger Elizabeth Warren locked in a tight race, 28 communities figure to be particularly important in deciding the winner. Three of them are in Hampshire County.

In January 2010, a majority of voters in those 28 communities chose Brown, lifting him to a surprise victory over Martha Coakley in the special election to determine a successor to the late U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy. Ten months later, voters in those same communities favored Gov. Deval Patrick and helped him win a second term over Republican challenger Charles Baker.

“I think they are going to be very important,” said Chris Keohan, president of Democratic consulting firm CK Strategies in Boston. “You’re talking about real working-class voters. Lots of Reagan Democrats. They’re a real battleground.”

Belchertown, South Hadley and Westhampton fell into the swing community category in 2010, with their voters favoring Brown, the Republican, in the Senate election, and Patrick, the Democrat, in the gubernatorial election.

Statewide, the swing communities vary in size and makeup. They include the working-class cities of Chicopee, Lowell, Quincy, Revere and Taunton, where the median household income and number of residents with a college education is below the state average.

Quincy is particularly crucial, since it has voted for the winner in every gubernatorial and Senate election dating back to at least 1996. Brown has made eight visits there during the 2012 campaign, and Warren has made seven. The only cities visited more often by the two candidates are Boston and Worcester.

“Brown doesn’t need the cities,” said Spencer Kimball, a Republican strategist and president of Kimball Political Consulting in Springfield. “But what he can’t do is get trounced in the cities. That way he can win it out through the suburbs.”

Other swing towns are bedroom communities like Longmeadow, Marion, Melrose and Stow, where the median household income and number of residents holding college degrees are far above the state average.

Unenrolled voters

The 28 municipalities that split between Brown and Patrick in 2010 do share some traits. They are overwhelmingly white and home to large numbers of unenrolled voters. In 21 of them, the number of unenrolled voters exceeds the statewide average of 52 percent.

Steve Kozcela, president of the MassInc. Polling Group in Boston, said that while most demographic groups did not switch their political party allegiance in the 2010 Senate and gubernatorial elections, “the two groups that really moved were women and unenrolled voters.”

Interviews with voters in Belchertown and South Hadley during late September mirror recent polls, which show a close race in which unenrolled voters will play a critical role.

Sharon Bennett of Belchertown is an unenrolled voter who is undecided. She likes Brown, but was turned off “when the mudslinging started.”

“At this point I’m confused,” Bennett said. “Just as I think I like someone you hear something and begin to wonder.”

Karen Provoda, a waitress at the Egg and I in South Hadley, said she hears a lot of talk there about the Senate race.

Who has the most support? “It’s pretty much even,” said Provoda, who plans to vote for Warren.

“She’s for working women,” Provoda said. “She’s going to try and do what’s right for the state.”

Her husband, Joe Provoda, who was finishing a breakfast of French toast, said he too is voting for Warren. But he said he met Brown once in Holyoke, and likes him.

“If Scott wins that’s OK, too,” he said.

Donna Poli of South Hadley said she and her husband are voting for Brown. “I get the impression that he is someone who would work for us,” Poli said.

Targeted efforts

Both parties have targeted voters in swing communities.

“Many of the people in these communities that we are talking about expect to be respected, to be asked for their vote and about the issues they care about. In the special election, we failed to do that,” said state Democratic Committee Chairman John Walsh. “That’s not a mistake we’re going to repeat here.”

Democrats have knocked on 20,000 doors statewide every week since June 1, using neighbors and community members to identify undecided voters, Walsh said.

Warren has 36 campaign offices statewide, including in the swing communities of Falmouth, Lowell, Orleans, Quincy and Southbridge.

Kimball, the GOP consultant, said Warren has the organizational edge.

“She is going to have a strong ground game and that is my biggest concern for Brown,” Kimball said.

Tim Buckley, a spokesman for the state GOP, said Republicans have reached out to 2 million voters this year, either face-to-face or by telephone. The state GOP and Brown’s campaign jointly operate nine offices statewide, double the number in the 2010 campaign, Buckley said.

Brown has offices in Lowell and Longmeadow. His campaign is headquartered in South Boston, a short drive from Quincy.

“We have a very aggressive field operation,” Buckley said. “Sen. Scott Brown is from Massachusetts, has roots here and people from across the state key in on that. Whether it’s Quincy or Taunton, they recognize his commitment to the state of Massachusetts.”

Ralph Whitehead, a journalism professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and longtime political observer, said turnout in the presidential election figures to surpass both the Senate and gubernatorial contests of 2010. Statewide, 2.2 million people voted in the 2010 Senate special election. Nearly 2.3 million voted in the gubernatorial election that same year.

More than 3 million voters cast ballots in the 2008 presidential election, when Obama won the state by a 62 percent to 36 percent margin over John McCain, and carried all 28 swing communities.

“The type of voters that come out in a presidential year are more likely to support Warren than Brown,” Whitehead said, noting that the Democratic challenger should be helped by Obama at the top of the ticket. “If this race is going to stay close, the difference in turnout may give Warren the edge.”

Kozcela, the pollster for MassInc., offered a similar view. “Voters undecided in the Senate race are overwhelmingly for Obama,” he said.

Most polls show the number of undecided voters in the Senate race in the 6 to 7 percent range, although a Boston Globe poll released Sept. 30 estimated that number at 18 percent, Kozcela said.

Interviews with area residents in recent weeks in Belchertown and South Hadley confirm that there are voters yet to be persuaded.

“It’s always a question of voting for person or party,” said Steve Cummings of Middlefield during a visit to South Hadley. “And I’ve come to believe that party dictates the agenda ... I was leaning toward Scott Brown, but now I am leaning toward Elizabeth Warren.”

Bob Novick of Ware, who was setting up his stand at the Belchertown Farmers Market, said the negative campaigning has turned him off.

“Right now I wouldn’t vote for either one of them,” Novick said. “I don’t care what Mr. Brown has to say about Ms. Warren or Ms. Warren has to say about Mr. Brown. I want to learn what they are going to do for Massachusetts, western Massachusetts and farmers in western Massachusetts.”

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