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Election Paradox: House Candidates From Hardest-Hit Regions Are Safer

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In a year when voters are angry about the economy and ready to oust incumbents, Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley would seem to be in big trouble – her Las Vegas-area district is the most economically stressed in the country, with soaring unemployment, bankruptcy and foreclosure rates.

But she and most other House members who represent areas with huge numbers of lost jobs appear to be in little danger of losing their own during this election cycle. Just the opposite: Incumbents from the nation's most economically resilient regions are the ones in trouble.

An Associated Press analysis of foreclosures, bankruptcies and unemployment figures shows that of the more than 100 races that will determine whether Republicans gain control of the House, only a few are in areas with the most extreme levels of economic stress.

In New Hampshire, for instance, polls show Republican challenger Frank Guinta ahead of Democratic Rep. Carol Shea-Porter even though the state's unemployment is 5.5 percent, well below the national rate of 9.6 percent. The state's other House race is tight despite New Hampshire's relative prosperity.

Susan Terzakis, 45, of Bedford, N.H., said she has voted for both parties in the past but feels having a Republican in the seat will help mend the economy. She has been frustrated by what she calls an exodus of jobs from the state and said Shea-Porter has been unresponsive to local and national economic problems.

"I don't think it's fair to lay it at any one person's feet," Terzakis said. "But I do think it's fair to say, `Where have you been? What have you been doing to stem that tide?' All we get is crickets."

Across the country, California has a bankruptcy rate twice as high as New Hampshire's, along with much higher unemployment. But only a few of its 53 congressional races are competitive.

Rep. Bob Filner, a Democrat who has been in office since 1993 and represents a California district that runs Mexico's border from suburban San Diego to the Arizona state line, is heavily favored for re-election, drawing much of his support from hard-hit Imperial County, which is saddled with the nation's highest unemployment rate – 30.4 percent in August.

Democrats have a 52-to-27-percent edge over the GOP in voter registration in the county, a farm region known for growing lettuce, spinach and broccoli.

Many of the places where economic stress is worst are urban or other areas that are heavily Democratic to begin with. As downtrodden as those voters are, they are unlikely to vote for Republican challengers.

Richard Flowers, a retired power plant operator who was born and raised in Imperial County, remembers voting only once for a Republican – Richard Nixon for president in 1968. Filner hasn't impressed him much, but Flowers voted absentee to give the congressman a 10th term, arguing that Republicans may make the economy worse.

"Obama's been in office two years and he's being blamed for not saying, 'Abracadabra, everything's perfect,'" Flowers said at Burgers & Beer in El Centro, the county seat. "Sometimes the devil you don't know is worse."

Elsewhere, in places less hard hit by economic stress, races are being shaped by perceptions about the economy nationally or by other frustrations over incumbents in Congress.

The AP's rough analysis of congressional district health indicated that the 20 districts with the worst economic conditions are in California, Nevada or Michigan. Two of the districts are competitive. The 20 districts with the best conditions are predominantly in the Midwest. Seven of them have competitive races.

North Dakota's lone congressional race, to represent an area with the strongest economy in the nation in the AP analysis, is too close to call. And in South Dakota, which has just one congressional district and the nation's second-healthiest state economy, three-term Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, a moderate Democrat, is in a close race against tea party star Kristi Noem, the GOP nominee.

Herseth Sandlin showed her independence by voting against health care reform and bailouts for the financial and auto industries, but it may not do her much good in a state where registered Republican voters outnumber Democrats 46 percent to 38 percent.

"I think, ultimately, this election is less about economic downturn in some very competitive races and more about perceived disconnects between incumbents and constituents," said William Anderson, a political science professor at the University of South Dakota.

Then there's Berkley, the Nevada congresswoman who has spent 10 years representing a portion of Las Vegas.

Her Republican challenger, Kenneth Wegner, is trying for a third time to oust her from Congress, blaming Berkley and years of other political leadership on both sides of the aisle for policies that caused the economic collapse.

Wegner said he believes all political leaders should be ousted from office. But his message isn't sticking.

"They're just not holding her responsible yet," he said. "If we really want to keep the Titanic captain in charge, then let's do that and we'll all go down together."

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Associated Press Writers Holly Ramer in Manchester, N.H., and Elliot Spagat in El Centro, Calif., contributed to this report.

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