(Reuters) - Incumbent mayors in Houston, Philadelphia, Indianapolis, Baltimore, and Charlotte, North Carolina, appeared to defeat challengers on Tuesday as voters favored the familiar in a time of diminishing local budgets and a weak national economy.
The elections were among the biggest of hundreds of mayoral contests across the country that for the most part featured lackluster races and low voter turnout.
In Houston, the fourth-largest city in the United States, Mayor Annise Parker, a Democrat and the first openly gay mayor of a major U.S. city, defeated five challengers in an officially nonpartisan race. She avoided a runoff by snagging 51 percent of the vote.
Parker, who has dealt with citywide layoffs and cuts to services because of budget reductions in her first two years in office, faced relatively unknown challengers as she sought a second term.
"I still love going to work every day," Parker told Reuters on Tuesday evening. "We've had many challenges these last two years, but we've accomplished a lot. I look forward to another two years serving the city I love."
In Philadelphia, the country's fifth-largest city, Democratic Mayor Michael Nutter was re-elected in the country's fifth-largest city, where Democrats vastly outnumber Republicans.
He was challenged by Republican Karen Brown, a retired teacher, and Independent Diop Olugbala, a community activist also known as Wali Rahman. Nutter had 75 percent of the vote, with 96 percent of precincts tallied, according to the city's official election site.
In Indianapolis, incumbent Greg Ballard, a Republican, claimed victory over Democratic opponent Melina Kennedy.
"We did it again," Ballard told an excited crowd of supporters in downtown Indianapolis. Ballard was a political novice when he upset Democrat Bart Peterson four years ago.
Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, a Democrat, easily overcame Republican challenger Alfred V. Griffin. Rawlings-Blake, who became mayor in 2010 after her predecessor Sheila Dixon resigned after pleading guilty to corruption charges, was seeking her first full term.
In Charlotte, site of the 2012 Democratic National Convention, incumbent Democrat Anthony Foxx held off a challenge by Republican Scott Stone, an engineering executive.
Races were also held in San Francisco, where interim mayor Ed Lee was vying to win re-election, and in Phoenix, where attorney and former councilman Greg Stanton, a Democrat, claimed victory over Republican Wes Gullett in an officially non-partisan race to replace term-limited Mayor Phil Gordon.
San Francisco's Lee, appointed interim mayor last fall when then-Mayor Gavin Newsom was elected lieutenant governor, led a field of 16 candidates in early mail-in ballots.
If successful in San Francisco's non-partisan race, he would be the first elected mayor of Chinese descent in a city where Chinese-Americans account for a quarter of the electorate.
Under the city's unusual ranked-choice voting system, if no candidate gets over 50 percent of the vote, the second and third choices cast by voters would come into play for an instant runoff.
Mesa, Arizona Mayor Scott Smith, a vice president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, said it was an exciting, challenging and frustrating time to be a mayor, and that those who chose to take on the task were either "challenge junkies" or "a glutton for punishment."
"You get a common sense of frustration among mayors born out of what we view as a disconnect between political rhetoric and reality," said Smith, who was not up for re-election on Tuesday. "The challenge mayors have is that the problems can't get kicked down the road."
Cities have felt the pinch of economic woes trickling down from national and state levels. Local economies faced with declining revenues, struggling housing markets, slow consumer spending and high levels of unemployment, have cut personnel, infrastructure and services in cities around the country, a study by the National League of Cities showed in September.
"It seems very likely that cities will confront further revenue declines and cuts in city spending in 2012," the report said, citing "a national economic recovery that has been weak or stalled".
The anti-incumbent sentiment that resonates strongly on the national level does not necessarily trickle down to mayoral elections, said Richard Murray, a political scientist at the University of Houston.
He said city elections do not necessarily reflect how voters respond to statewide and national elections, and how a mayor performs in office is what helps on election day, not just factors such as party affiliation.
Murray said Houston saw a light at the end of the tunnel because its economy was bouncing back and doing better than the national trend. But mayors all around the country were sure to face hurdles as they begin their next term in office.
"The city is a big enterprise; a major economic player," he said. "When revenues flattened out and the person put in charge of running the city is struggling, it's a challenging job in these conditions."
Reporting by Erin Mulvaney in Beaumont, Texas, Susan Guyett in Indianapolis, David Schwartz in Phoenix, Karin Matz and James Kelleher in Chicago, Jason Tomassini in Baltimore, Steve Gorman in Los Angeles and Dave Warner in Philadelphia; Editing by Corrie MacLaggan and Cynthia Johnston