Rivers of campaign cash - at least $600,000 - flowed into last fall's Wake County school board races, more than doubling the total of any previous race, newly released reports showed Monday.
With a new student assignment plan as a central issue, the candidates, state and county parties, and outside groups raised funds and paid for mailers, get-out-the-vote efforts, rallies, broadcast ads and paid staff. Amounts donated to individual Democratic candidates appeared to outpace cash for Republican candidates, who lost each of the five seats they contested.
The school board candidates alone raised more than $470,000. Reports are still coming in from the political parties and outside groups, but their spending surpassed $150,000, and the final amount is likely to be higher.
Before 2011, only one Wake school board candidate had raised more than $50,000. Last year, four candidates topped that mark.
"You used to be able to make a run for school board in Wake County with less than $10,000," said David McLennan, a political science professor at William Peace University. "People realize that they'll have to raise more that now."
Andy Taylor, a political science professor at N.C. State University, said, "It shows the school board elections are no longer sleepy little affairs."
More than a quarter-million dollars poured into the single race that decided the balance of power on the board - incumbent Democrat Kevin Hill's runoff victory over political newcomer Heather Losurdo, a Republican. Aided by the sort of big-donor checks that showed up in many candidates' war chests, Losurdo raised $99,207 - a record for a Wake school board race.
Hill raised $68,598, but the funding deficit was offset by at least $82,000 in mailers attacking Losurdo that were sent by a liberal advocacy group not connected to his campaign.
"I think the money was a bad influence on the process to the degree that the ... election should be about the board, so that you can have good outcomes for kids," said Hill, who regained his former post as board chairman after the election. "On the part of both parties, it became much more partisan that it should have been."
Political veterans say that the race establishes a new financial standard, whether it's reached again or not. Dennis Berwyn, Losurdo's campaign manager, called the school board election a "beta test" for this year's presidential election.
"It was an attempt by outside powers to see what messages work," he said.
Losurdo had her long-ago bankruptcy and stint as a gentleman's club waitress unearthed by Democratic operatives, yet still accomplished a major feat as a newcomer, Berwyn said.
"That's a testament to what one determined individual who believes in herself can do," Berwyn said.
Dean Debnam, a Democratic activist, headed a group that donated more than $130,000 to Common Sense Matters, which targeted Republican school board candidates Losurdo and former board chairman Ron Margiotta with attack mailers.
Debnam said the spending was the result of the backlash against the "right-wing" policies of the Republican majority on the school board.
"You saw people who said, 'We don't want to destroy one of the best school systems in the nation,' " Debnam said.
Debnam said the 2009 elections that propelled Republicans into power taught Democrats the need to be as aggressive in contesting the school board seats.
Debnam said he doesn't expect the school board races in 2013 to be an intense, because the outcome won't change political control of the board. Only seats now held by Republicans are on the 2013 ballot.
"I don't think you could spend money any more effectively," Debnam said. "I don't imagine the school board races could get more intense."
Jack Hawke, former state Republican Party chairman and adviser toLosurdo, said the Democrats were able to frame the campaign around the complaints about the Republican board and away from those leveled in the past at Democrats.
Despite what happened, Hawke said, Republicans will still work toward regaining the majority by first trying to hold on to their seats in 2013.
"They've got a long road ahead to regain the school board majority," he said.