RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
We're going to hear now about a very small race that's making big political waves. The race is for the school board of Wake County, North Carolina. It comes after a policy using family income to create economic diversity in the schools was tossed out by a Republican school board in 2009. This Tuesday, a runoff election for one seat on the board may put the Democrats back in the majority. Dave DeWitt of North Carolina Public Radio reports the school board race is attracting national attention and big money.
DAVID DEWITT, BYLINE: The United States education secretary doesn't usually weigh in on local school board elections.
SECRETARY ARNE DUNCAN: I wasn't thrilled with what happened here in Wake County. I was very public about that. And I think with the recent school board elections, there may be an opportunity to move in a more positive direction.
DEWITT: When Arne Duncan visited Wake County late last month, he made it clear he was watching Raleigh.
The Obama administration's interest is the latest confirmation that, at least in Wake County, school board races aren't for candidates who think it's just a little more involved than a PTA bake sale.
David McLennan is a political science professor at William Peace University in Raleigh.
DAVID MCLENNAN: In terms of school board, that always had the reputation of being just a sleepy little race, and a lot of professionals out of the education world would run. But starting in 2009, it's like the world turned on its head.
DEWITT: The chief architect of the 2009 turnaround was a local businessman named Art Pope. He spends millions of dollars funding a statewide network of conservative think tanks, election advocacy groups and PACs. After winning the Wake School Board races, the Pope Machine last year used similar tactics to help Republicans win majorities in the North Carolina legislature and pick up a seat on the congressional delegation. Now, Democratic-leaning groups are striking back.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV ADVERTISEMENT)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The Tea Party backed right-wing agenda has taken over our schools. Our school board leaders have turned us into a national laughing stock.
DEWITT: Ads like those helped Democrats win four school board races last month. And now, national and local political organizations are focusing on the fifth race - a runoff between Democrat Kevin Hill and Republican Heather Losurdo, a self-described Tea Party conservative.
HEATHER LOSURDO: You know, they tried to paint me as this Tea Party extremist with wild radical views and I'm going to end public education. And I just, at this point, find that laughable because I am championing public education.
DEWITT: Losurdo finds the personal attacks less laughable. During the campaign, a group called Progress NC Action has publicized her 20-year old personal bankruptcy, a job she held at a strip club in 1993, and her positive reaction to a racist joke her husband posted about President Obama on Facebook.
None of those are likely to play well with voters in her district - suburban north Raleigh. It's a relatively affluent area, evenly split between registered Democrats and Republicans, and has a high number of independents. McLennan, the political scientist, points at this race as one of the political hotspots that could decide much larger elections.
MCLENNAN: And I think going forward we're going to be looking at that district to kind of say what does this tell us about how the presidential campaign or election is going to turn out or how gubernatorial campaign is going to go. And I think the more candidates discover that it's that district and other districts like it, they're going to be really even more strategic in terms of their campaigning.
DEWITT: Before 2009, a candidate for Wake County School Board spent roughly $10,000 during a campaign. This year, the combined spending has already surpassed a half-million dollars. It's a dramatic increase and a precursor to how much money is expected to roll into the 2012 elections from the president on down.
For NPR News, I'm Dave DeWitt.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MONTAGNE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.