NORTHAMPTON, Mass. — First, a geography lesson. Western Massachusetts doesn’t begin just past Interstate 495. It doesn’t include Worcester, or even Sturbridge. The region hugs Vermont, New York and Connecticut. It not only has fall foliage and cool college towns, but also working-class cities and well-to-do suburbs.
Republican incumbent U.S. Sen. Scott Brown and Democratic challenger Elizabeth Warren will meet there Wednesday for the third debate in a tight race for a pivotal U.S. Senate seat.
The debate takes place in Springfield, in one of the only corners of the state that voted mostly against Brown in 2010. Western Massachusetts may only have an eighth of the state’s voters, but those voters are paying close attention to this race.
John Walsh, chair of the Massachusetts Democratic Party, has a special affection for this part of the state.
“I think of western Massachusetts as heaven,” Walsh said. “It’s loaded with Democrats who are smart and vote a lot.”
Actually the area is no more loaded with registered Democrats than the rest of the state, but in 2008 voter turnout exceeded the state average in three out of the four western Massachusetts counties.
“People pay attention to politics, they get involved,” said Tim Vercellotti, director of the Western New England University Polling Institute. “There may not be a lot of them, but who knows? In a close race, they could make the difference.”
Like the rest of the state, about half of the voters are unenrolled or independent. Western Massachusetts resident and the state’s former acting governor, Republican Jane Swift, says these voters are not driven by ideology.
“Many folks in western Massachusetts are pragmatic and would like to see Washington work better,” Swift said. “So I think Sen. Brown’s bipartisan approach and willingness to reach across the aisle is the type of Republican advocacy and activity that has traditionally played well in western Massachusetts.”
But in the last Senate race, most of the western municipalities voted for Democrat Martha Coakley, including Northampton, where she won nearly 80 percent of the vote.
At the town’s weekly farmer’s market, musicians take the edge off the fall chill and 75-year-old Susan Norton, a retired nurse, wields an “Elizabeth Warren for Senate” sign.
“She’s much more for the 99 percent than Scott Brown is,” Norton said. “I feel she’s much more honest about being in that position.”
Among the mostly-Warren supporters here is Jim Wagner, a registered Republican who says he thinks of himself as independent.
“The important issue would be, for me, who can work best in the Senate, who would be the most effective there,” Wagner said. “I lean towards Brown in that respect.”
Wagner is from East Longmeadow, one of the towns on the Connecticut border that supported Brown in 2010. Tim Vercellotti says many of those communities aren’t wedded to one party or the other.
“They’re willing to split their ticket. Some of these voters may be white working class folks, so called ‘Reagan Democrats,’ ” Vercelloti said. “Some of them may lean Republican in some of the more affluent communities along the border. Those are the folks Brown has to attract to put together a winning coalition.”
Fifteen miles south of Northampton, West Springfield, which supported Brown in 2008, is also holding a farmer’s market.
Beekeeper Jim Wachala is an independent who supports Warren.
“I just think she’s for the little guy, period,” Wachala said.
Wachala’s wife, Barbara, is a retired Head Start administrator and an independent who supported Brown last time.
“He seemed to be pretty independent and he seemed to be receptive and open to all people at that time,” Barbara said. But she no longer feels that way. This election she’s voting for Warren.
“She understands the plight of women as far as their health goes,” Barbara said. “I also think she understands what the middle class is facing.”
For 83-year-old Pat Allen, national security is the key issue. She’s voting for Sen. Brown.
“He’s a good family man and I think he’s sincere in what he’s trying to do,” Allen said. “And, I don’t know, I just kind of trust him. It isn’t because he’s good looking.”
No matter what the reason, Walsh, from the state Democratic party, says every vote carries a lot of weight in this tight race.
“There’s no question western Massachusetts is an essential part of any statewide calculation and the kind of people who underestimate that, they have a name for them: losers,” Walsh said. “They don’t win elections.”