An army of political operatives will descend on a section of northern Wake County over the next month to influence a pivotal school board contest that will decide whether a Republican or Democratic majority will guide the state's largest school system for at least the next two years.
A school board battle that's already been the most expensive in Wake County history, raising at least $400,000, will get even more costly as Democrats try to push District 3 incumbent Kevin Hill over the top and Republicans work to boost Heather Losurdo's showing.
"It's a whole new race," Republican school board Vice Chairman John Tedesco said. "The whole county will be focused on this one race. This will be it."
On Tuesday, Democratic-backed candidates won four seats outright, including ousting Republican school board Chairman Ron Margiotta. The only undecided contest is in District 3, where Hill's 49.7 percent of the vote was just shy of the majority needed to avoid a runoff.
Losurdo says she will request a runoff. The final election results will be certified Tuesday, with it looking unlikely that Hill would be able to pick up enough additional votes to win a majority.
The 5-4 Republican majority that took office in 2009, and made major changes such as eliminating the use of busing to achieve socioeconomic diversity, stands on the edge of being ousted.
"The voters of Wake County do not like to see this level of ideology injected into decisions," said Mack Paul, chairman of the Wake County Democratic Party.
Susan Bryant, chairwoman of the Wake County Republican Party, did not return voice mail or email messages Wednesday requesting comment.
The electoral focus over the next month will be on District 3's nearly 70,000 registered voters. District 3 extends from older areas in northeast Raleigh, such as the Millbrook and North Ridge communities, north to newer, fast-growing communities, such as Bedford and Wakefield.
Among voters, 36.1 percent are registered Democrats, 35.9 percent are registered Republicans, and 27.8 percent are unaffiliated.
The county's extra cost for the runoff will be $130,000 to $150,000, said Cherie Poucher, director of the Wake County Board of Elections. She cited printing costs and staffing for 20 polling places that would have been closed Nov. 8.
During the campaign, Hill ignored Losurdo as he called himself the "principled principal" and stressed his background as a former Wake teacher and principal. The only candidate he mentioned in his fliers was Margiotta, which Hill said he did to contrast their respective tenures as chairman of the board. Margiotta and the GOP majority deposed Hill as chairman after the 2009 election.
Hill said he had no intention to go negative on Losurdo in the coming month.
"We will continue to run a clean campaign," Hill said. "We are role modeling for our 146,000 students and 18,000 employees. I will not approve of anything less."
But several Democratic-leaning groups not affiliated with Hill mounted a series of near daily attacks on Losurdo, setting up a website and sending campaign mailers accusing her of being a "tea party extremist." One group, Common Sense Matters, spent $52,000 on mailers targeting Losurdo, who has spoken at tea party rallies, and Margiotta.
Hill said he wished those groups would stop sending the negative mailers.
Losurdo's campaign has acknowledged that the outside attacks have taken a toll on her. A mother and former president of the Northern Wake Republican Club, she emphasized the positive Wednesday, expressing confidence that she can win in November.
"Yesterday, a majority of 3rd District voters rejected Kevin Hill's record of opposition to neighborhood schools, and his lack of support for the concerns of parents in his district," Losurdo said in a written statement. "This district has a choice between continuing with a representative on the School Board who ignores their concerns, or putting someone in office who shares their frustrations and concerns."
Tuesday's election results also reflected some of the concerns parents have expressed about a new student assignment plan that the school board is poised to adopt.
Hill won Democratic-leaning precincts closer to central Raleigh and the North Ridge area, where he has echoed fears from parents that the assignment plan would change the schools their communities have long attended.
Losurdo did best in the northern part of the district, where some residents have been upset by Hill's votes on past student assignment plans and his opposition to converting Wakefield Elementary School back to a traditional calendar.
A third candidate
A wild card could be the voters who backed Jennifer Mansfield, who finished third with less than 8.2 percent of the vote. Hill benefitted from a split between the Wake Schools Community Alliance and the Wake County Republican Party, which had worked together in 2009 to elect the Republican majority but chose different candidates this time in District 3.
Mansfield, whom the WSCA backed, generally did best in precincts where the vote was split between Hill and Losurdo, such as Bedford at Falls River. Mansfield, who criticized both Hill and Losurdo during the campaign, said Wednesday she hadn't decided yet whether she'll endorse Losurdo.
Amid criticism from Losurdo's supporters that she cost her votes, Mansfield argued she also had taken enough votes away from Hill on Tuesday to deny him the majority.
"I could have beaten Hill if they had been willing to support me," Mansfield said of the Wake GOP. "But they wanted to play partisan politics."
Based on how close Hill came to winning and the outcome of the other four races, Paul, the county Democratic chairman, said Losurdo shouldn't ask for the runoff. He also cited the division it would generate in the community and the expense.
"She ought to respect that the public is tired of the divisiveness," he said.
Hill said that if the situation were reversed, he would not have asked for a run-off.
Francis DeLuca, head of Civitas Action, a conservative group largely backed by businessman Art Pope, offered some hope Wednesday for Losurdo's supporters. Civitas Action had sent mailers over the past month to voters praising Losurdo, Margiotta and board candidate Donna Williams, who lost Tuesday.
"Typically, an incumbent who doesn't reach 50 percent in an election is a big thing," DeLuca said. "Even with the high turnout election, they couldn't get him over the finish line."