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As midterm nears, Democratic activist sees fewer friendly faces in Arkansas

By Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 17, 2010; 7:53 AM

IN LITTLE ROCK, ARK. When the woman answers the door, the smiling activist waiting on her front stoop asks her if she'll be voting for Democrats this year.

Yes, Buddie Everett says, she will.

"Great!" says the activist, John Joyce. "Can we put a sign in your yard?"

Sure.

Joyce, smiling even bigger now, goes off to fetch the sign. One more voter solidly in the D column - no small thing in a year and a state like this.

Or, perhaps not.

"Honestly, I'm still kind of wishy-washy," Everett confides once Joyce is out of earshot. "I'm just frustrated, and I don't know if it's the government or what, but it just seems like there are so many horrific things happening right now."

That about sums up what it's like for a Democratic activist this year. At some doors, even once-committed supporters look at their party leaders and words such as "horrific" come to mind.

Joyce is a deep-in-the-bones Democrat who has been walking these neighborhoods and tapping signs into these lawns during campaign seasons for more than 18 years. He's an optimist who looks for signs of hope in every warm handshake and every nod of the head. But the reality this year is that the people behind the doors are less enthusiastic and more skeptical of his party's pitch.

The reception he received recently in a rural neighborhood outside Little Rock was so hostile that he abandoned his efforts after knocking on just a couple of doors.

"I've never seen so many pit bulls in my life," he says.

His enthusiasm masks an undeniable trend: This once reliably Democratic state is steadily turning Republican. A majority of elected officials in Arkansas are still Democrats, but even Joyce acknowledges that the number is misleading. Arkansas was just one of a handful of states where voters supported John McCain in 2008 in greater numbers than they did George W. Bush four years earlier.

Polls show Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D) lagging behind her Republican challenger, Rep. John Boozman. Two veteran Democratic congressmen are retiring this year, and both seats present prime opportunities for Republican contenders.

Joyce isn't interested in dwelling on statistics such as those. He is a true believer and wills himself to be optimistic. When the pundits on cable TV start making doomsday predictions, he reaches for the mute button. When he gets a critical e-mail, he deletes it. When his wife sees a car with a snarky Republican bumper sticker - "How's that Hopey Changey Stuff Working Out For You?" - she slaps a scribbled reply on the windshield: "It's going just fine, thanks for asking."

"We just don't sit and think about it at night and worry about what's going on," Joyce says. "I approach it as, we just go out and do what we can. You do your all for your candidate. If you do good and get some votes, that's all that matters."

Arkansas Travelers

In 1992, Joyce was one of the Arkansas Travelers, a merry band of activists who drove around the country in rented vans to support Bill Clinton's presidential campaign. Subsisting on cookies and crackers, they spent their days knocking on doors, cheering at rallies and waving signs at intersections. Years later they regrouped for Hillary Clinton, and when that didn't work out they threw their support behind Barack Obama. This year, they will climb back in the van for Lincoln. Joyce plans to be at the wheel.

Back in the day, the group would park in Democratic-leaning neighborhoods and hit every door on the block. Now they use computer-generated lists gleaned from voter databases and target only those homes that are likely to have friendly faces inside.

The day goes like this: Knock on a door, drive a couple of blocks. Knock on another door, drive another couple of blocks.

On a recent morning, Joyce pulls on his baby blue "Blanche Lincoln for Senate" T-shirt, fastens his clip-on sunglasses and climbs into his Volvo SUV.

"Let's rock-and-roll," he says.

When he talks to voters, he reminds them that the economic downturn began on former Bush's watch. If Lincoln loses to Boozman, Joyce argues, the state will also lose her strong advocacy as chairwoman of the Senate agriculture committee, which oversees the state's largest industry.

Gamely, he says he senses people becoming more receptive to his message.

"It's getting more positive for the Democratic Party," he says. "Everybody seems to have a new bounce in their step."

Joyce will go anywhere he thinks he'll find voters willing to listen. Manning the Democratic Party table at the Arkansas State Fair, he calls out to men in overalls and cowboy hats, to women pushing strollers. On the table, he's set out a fresh crop of Blanche Lincoln bumper stickers that declare her "One Tough Lady."

After a while, a man walks over wearing a green T-shirt that says, "Either he dies, or the country dies." The man says, "Blanche'll be gone in four weeks, thank goodness."

Joyce mumbles back, "I hope that works out for you" - a lame response, he acknowledges. But what do you say to such in-your-face animosity?

It takes Joyce a bit to rebound. After a few minutes he says he's shaken it off.

"He's gone, forgotten about," he says.

He looks at his watch.

"Time to rock-and-roll," he says, and he gathers up his things.

Keeping his head up

Joyce sets out next to knock on doors for Democratic House candidate Joyce Elliott, in a neighborhood not far from his home in the Heights, an upscale neighborhood set atop a lush hill in northwest Little Rock.

It is in this neighborhood of tiny brick homes and tree-dense yards that Joyce meets Everett.

After learning that she isn't such a rock-solid supporter after all, he says, "I ought to go back there and get my pin back," and then lets out a whoop of laughter.

Instead, he moves on. At one home, Ryan Brooks, 31, an engineer, emerges sleepily from his darkened doorway. He says he voted for Obama but is mildly disappointed at the sluggish pace of change - "though it seems like it's not all his fault," he says.

Brooks says he has not paid much attention to the midterm elections . That's another big challenge for Democrats this year: drawing out the so-called Obama "surge" voters who backed the president but do not typically vote in off-year elections. Their lack of enthusiasm for this year's contest has helped Republicans, who boast greater energy within their base.

Still, the exchange is heartening to Joyce, and a quick succession of positive responses follows, further lifting his mood.

"We understand she's going to win," one elderly woman says of Elliott from inside her screen door. Joyce grins and nods and thanks her for her support.

He does not point out that Elliott is now considered the underdog in her race against Republican Tim Griffin.

In the car, Joyce mops the sweat from his forehead. His cellphone rings. It is Sheila Bronfman, head of the Arkansas Travelers, checking in to see how things are going.

"It's going great," he tells her. "A lot of people are voting straight ticket."

The ones on the targeted lists, at least. He doesn't mention the man in the green T-shirt.

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