(em>Editor's note: A quote in Rob Christensen's column on Wednesday's front page did not fully identify the speaker. Mack Paul, chairman of the Wake County Democratic Party, said: "All of a sudden you saw a board majority that prominently waved its party hat and were speaking at tea party rallies."
RALEIGH -- The Democrats rode a powerful tide in the polls Tuesday night, winning the Raleigh mayor's race and making a strong bid to recapture control of the Wake County school board.
Just as Republicans mobilized a year ago nationally in opposition to President Barack Obama and his health care plan, Wake County Democrats were galvanized by the debate over the future of the Wake County school system and what the GOP's plans to return to neighborhood schools might mean for integration.
Raleigh City Councilman Nancy McFarlane, who is unaffiliated, cruised to easy victory to become Raleigh's second female mayor. In Cary, Democratic Mayor Harold Weinbrecht won re-election. Both won with Democratic support and will serve with Democratic council majorities. The Democratic tide also swept in $56 million in road and housing bonds.
But Tuesday's elections were driven by the school board contests - a highly emotional battle to see who would control the state's largest school system.
Since 2009, the Republicans have held a 5-4 majority on the technically nonpartisan board, and have sought to move to a more neighborhood-oriented school system. The fight has been so contentious it has grabbed national attention and been lampooned on Comedy Central's "Colbert Report."
The question was whether the Republicans could hold on to their slim majority as board chairman Ron Margiotta, a Republican, was defeated. But one Democratic board member, Kevin Hill, fell just short of winning a majority, and appeared headed for a runoff Nov. 8.
"It was mad Democrats turning out that was driving it," said Andy Taylor, a political science professor at N.C. State University.
"We seem to have these kinds of pendulum swings," Taylor said. "In the school board races, the Republicans were the status quo. It greatly motivated the Democrats to get out."
The turnout in the polarizing school board race, Taylor said, helped Democrats up and down the ticket, where there were few other burning issues.
Municipal candidates struggled to get attention and money, overshadowed by the school board fight.
The Raleigh mayor's race may also have reflected a sense of voter satisfaction with a fast-growing Sunbelt city of more than 403,000 that has just been named by BusinessWeek.com as America's best.
Mayor Charles Meeker, a Democrat, is ending a 10-year run, and his quiet, moderately progressive policies left him a popular figure.
More than any of the other candidates, McFarlane, a key ally of Meeker's, promised continuity.
With things generally going well in the city, there were relatively few openings for Billie Redmond, a Republican businesswoman and civic leader. Neither Redmond nor McFarlane seemed to have the temperament or inclination to run negative campaigns.
In the closing weeks of the campaign, Redmond did try to draw some contrasts, criticizing the city's debt and coming out against $56 million in transportation and affordable-housing bond issues that were on the ballot.
The traditional divide in city politics - inside-the-Beltline trending Democratic and outside-the-Beltline trending Republican - was more complicated in the mayor's race.
McFarlane rose in politics as a neighborhood advocate who represented her North Raleigh suburban district, while Redmond lives inside the Beltline and has good ties with much of the city establishment.
McFarlane will be the first Raleigh mayor to live in North Raleigh since Tom Bradshaw, who held the office from 1971 to 1973.
Benefiting McFarlane was the city's traditional Democratic lean, a legacy of its large state employee work force, the presence of N.C. State University, and a sizeable African-American community.
"This is a pretty strongly Democratic city," said Gary Pearce, a veteran Democratic consultant. "It is probably the reason that (Barack) Obama carried North Carolina."
The powerful engine driving the Wake County elections on Tuesday was the school board races.
The Wake Democratic Party launched a get-out-the vote effort - costing $85,000 - that was unparalleled for a local effort in an off year.
The campaign included five paid field organizers, 450 volunteers, and offices in Fuquay-Varina, Apex, Raleigh and North Raleigh.
At issue: The 2009 election of a Republican majority on the Wake school board and its effort to undo the county's long-standing policy for keeping schools economically - and therefore racially - diverse.
"All of a sudden you saw a board majority that prominently waved its party hat and were speaking at tea party rallies," Paul said. "We've seen a big reaction and concern on the schools in Wake County and the reputation of Wake County."
The only Republican on the board facing the voters was Chairman Ron Margiotta, who represents Southwest Wake County.
Margiotta also represents a suburban district where there is significant support for the Republican plan for more neighborhood schools, even if it means that more schools would be racially segregated.
The Democratic campaign for businesswoman Susan Evans focused on Margiotta as a divisive figure and a representative of the tea party as opposed to the Republican Party.
Democrats also focused attention on protecting incumbent Hill, a Democrat and a past chairman, who was challenged in his North Raleigh district by three candidates. But Hill fell just short of the 50 percent required to win, getting 49.7 percent of the vote. Second-place finisher Heather Losurdo says she will call for a runoff.
With the control of the Wake County schools in the balance, Taylor said, "it's going to be a mega race."