Reporting from Las Vegas — Every few weeks, when Rep. Dina Titus props open a folding table in some corner of her sprawling congressional district, the first-term Democrat is hit by a tidal wave of woes: bankruptcies, job losses, unpaid medical bills, communities emptied of homeowners and hope.
Though Titus' mostly suburban turf is relatively affluent, the recession has ripped apart its neighborhoods with a tornado's fury. After the Las Vegas-area district was carved out after the 2000 census, its population swelled with middle-class transplants scooping up good-paying casino and construction jobs and carbon-copy homes.
The financial crash obliterated southern Nevada's economy — the unemployment rate is 14.5% — and turned Titus' district into a land of thwarted dreams. The home foreclosure rate is triple the national average. Bank of America even took possession of the building that houses Titus' Las Vegas office.
"This unemployment thing is killing us all," said landlord Shirley Ritz, 72, who sat down at Titus' folding table on a recent Saturday. Ritz had been struggling to fill her properties — even after shaving rent to $650 — after tenants were laid off or their hours were slashed.
Amid the ruin, Titus is running — uphill — for reelection in November. Emblematic of a crop of freshmen swept into office with President Obama and campaigning in the wake of the worst economic contraction since the Great Depression, Titus must win over an angry and frustrated electorate.
Do voters trust Democrats to steer the nation back to prosperity? Or have they soured on a diet of federal spending and industry bailouts that, so far, have done little to dent the nation's unemployment rate?
In a year when pocketbook concerns will decide whether Democrats forfeit the House and Senate to Republicans, many wallets are as threadbare as voters' patience.
"Voters who hired Democrats in 2008 desperately hoped that a change in government would bring about a change in the trajectory of the economy," said David Wasserman, an analyst who handicaps House races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. "They haven't seen that happen.
"To the extent things have gotten worse, or at least been stagnant," he added, "[Titus] stands to lose her job."
Titus' district is a key theater in the midterm skirmishing. The GOP considers the Y-shaped mass — closely split between registered Republicans and Democrats — a place where it can pick up one of the 39 seats it needs to control the House.
Titus, 60, must contend not only with the sluggish economy but a strong opponent in Joe Heck, 48, who represented some of the district in the state Senate, as well as a flood of national Republican money, which promises to make the contest one of the nation's costliest.
Heck, a physician who lost his seat in the 2008 Democratic wave, said campaigning has involved skipping past bank-owned houses and meeting Nevadans fleeing the state after losing jobs, homes, cars and confidence. While Titus has voted nearly down the line for Obama's agenda, including the 2009 stimulus bill and sweeping healthcare legislation, Heck has mostly lined up with congressional Republicans, who have moved to block — or vowed to repeal — much of what Democrats accomplished.
Though many economists say the stimulus eased the economic downturn and saved millions of jobs, Heck is unconvinced.
"What it comes down to is that, for the people of southern Nevada, it failed," he said. "We're at 14% unemployment, ground zero for foreclosures. So no matter what came out of Washington, what it did in the 49 other states, it's not doing anything for us."
Titus enjoys a commanding financial edge, having raised $1.75 million to Heck's $600,000. More significantly, she had nearly four times the cash on hand.
Still, money is hardly determinative, especially in a campaign shaped by such deep-felt economic anxiety. Nothing can resuscitate Nevada's tourism-dependent economy until other states, particularly California, bounce back — and economists don't expect much before 2011.
Obama's waning popularity won't help Titus. Nor will signs that Republican fervor is eclipsing that of Democrats. While the voter rolls of both major parties in Clark County, which includes Las Vegas, dipped over the last 18 months, Democrats lost nearly twice as many registered voters as Republicans.
Though Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who faces his own brutal contest, is expected to pour money into a get-out-the-vote operation, he in no way electrifies the Democratic base. The party's nominee for governor? Reid's son Rory.
"If Democrats look at the governor's race and the Senate race and say, 'I'm putting my earplugs in and going fishing that day,' Dina Titus is a loser too," said Stuart Rothenberg, publisher of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report.