DENVER -- "For the first time in my life, I will probably vote a straight Democratic ticket."
That realization came as something of a surprise to non-practicing attorney Wendy McCord, who has always thought of herself as a Republican. The mother of two children in Jefferson County's public school system, McCord told The Huffington Post that she has been politically transformed by the actions of the new conservative majority on the county school board, which presides over the state's second-largest school district.
Here in Jefferson County, a bellwether battleground that is almost evenly split between Republicans, Democrats and independents, a local educational controversy is resonating with county voters who otherwise might not have been engaged in this year's elections. Frustrated Republicans like McCord could be the deciding votes in Colorado's gubernatorial race, in which Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) faces a strong challenge from former Rep. Bob Beauprez (R), as well as its Senate race, in which Democratic Sen. Mark Udall is in danger of being unseated by Republican challenger Rep. Cory Gardner.
The battle began last November, when three conservative candidates for county school board swept into office, establishing a majority on the five-person board. The newly-elected board members hired their own attorney and proceeded to clash with teachers and parents over issues such as pay, charter schools and kindergarten expansion. The move that garnered the most national attention, however, was a proposal for a new Advanced Placement U.S. history curriculum that would de-emphasize civil disobedience and disorder while emphasizing patriotism, citizenship and "respect for authority." To protest the proposal, thousands of students left their classrooms and held demonstrations in solidarity with their teachers, who called in sick.
"Seeing how the narrow-minded, very focused agenda of the three people who got elected to the school board and now can do pretty much whatever they want, it has made me much more attuned with what's going on with many of the political races," McCord said. "I consider myself generally conservative but to have people with such extreme views running the show has been really frightening."
"Looking at the candidates, no Republican candidates have been brought to my attention that are much more moderate," McCord said, explaining her ideological shift this year. "Most of them are so far to the right that they do not represent Middle America's moderate conservatism … At 46, I've resigned myself that maybe more liberal is OK if it's a lesser of two evils."
The school board controversy is especially relevant given the pivotal role Jefferson County plays in statewide elections. An informal saying here is "As Jeffco goes, so goes Colorado," referencing the fact that the county, which encompasses the suburbs west of Denver, has voted with the winners in U.S. Senate races since 1992 and gubernatorial contests since 1978.
The demonstrations against the school board recently came up in the Senate race, when Udall and Gardner were asked during an Oct. 15 debate whether they'd ever engaged in civil disobedience. Udall said he had protested against the Vietnam War, and Gardner elicited a laugh by saying that he had disobeyed his parents "by having a Pepsi after 9 o'clock at night." While Udall has praised the actions of the student demonstrators and said that the board should listen to them, Gardner has declined to weigh in, perhaps recognizing the issue's political salience for Jefferson County voters.
Though the school board elections are nonpartisan, the board's new majority has the support of the conservative group Americans for Prosperity, which operates with financial help from the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch. The director of AFP's Colorado chapter recently wrote an op-ed thanking the board's new majority for initiating reforms. AFP also began a letter-writing campaign expressing support for increased charter school funding, something the school board favors.
Michael Clark, a registered independent who was educated in Jefferson County, suggested that the school board issue could impact November's statewide races if voters take their frustrations out on candidates who are politically aligned with the conservative board members. (No recall election has been initiated for the board itself.) For instance, Beauprez said in an interview earlier this month that the student protesters were being manipulated by their teachers.
"A lot of people were put off by his comments," Clark told HuffPost.
Clark, like McCord, has experienced a political adjustment following the school board's reforms. After voting for two of the new members of the majority, he dropped by a school board meeting and found himself deeply disappointed with what he saw as the board's lack of transparency and tone-deaf agenda.
Shawna Fritzler, a registered Republican with a child in the county's public schools, also expressed frustration with the board's majority for limiting public feedback and committing "transparency violations." Fritzler told HuffPost that the board's actions led her to begin attending board meetings and to get involved with the nonprofit Support Jeffco Kids.
"They're following the tea party gospel instead of what's right for kids," she said, referencing the board's approach to school funding and its support for expanded charter school access. "I had always voted a straight party ticket, that's when I started going to board meetings and saying 'What's going on?' ... They're playing political games with taxpayer money, deciding that we'll fund some kids and not others."
"Beauprez, based on his comments, he knows nothing about education or academic standards, makes a comment about JeffCo schools when he has not attended one board meeting," Fritzler continued, referencing the gubernatorial candidate's comments about the student demonstrators. "Not that I agree with Hickenlooper, but I find myself saying, 'OK, who's the worst? The Republicans.'"
Democratic state Sen. Andy Kerr, who is up for re-election in a year when his party is protecting its one-seat majority in the state legislature's upper chamber, told HuffPost that the controversy over the school board's actions has come up repeatedly as he campaigned.
"Gosh, we've literally knocked on more than ten thousand doors," Kerr said. "It is one of the bigger issues, this discomfort around the school board making all these drastic changes. It was on a lot of people's radar screens."
"I've talked to people across the political spectrum and this doesn't seem to be breaking down by party lines, at all," Kerr added. "It's gone from one of the issues that people in our county were talking about to the issue, by far the biggest issue, people talk about."
Kerr opposes the board's education reforms. By contrast, his Republican opponent, Tony Sanchez, has been endorsed by Julie Williams, one of the three conservative board members embroiled in the controversy.
Republican congressional candidate Don Ytterberg, who is challenging Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D), disagreed with Kerr's assessment, telling the Associated Press last month that no voters had asked him about the school board as he canvassed the district, and that he didn't think any candidates in Colorado would benefit from the issue in November.