When voters in Alabama's Senate District 13 head to the polls Tuesday, they'll decide a battle that has been almost a year in the making.
Cleburne County Republican Party chairman Tim Sprayberry began raising money last July to challenge incumbent Sen. Gerald Dial, R-Lineville, for the chance to represent the district, which covers a swath of rural eastern Alabama from Smiths Station to Spring Garden. Tuesday's winner will face Democrat Darrell Turner in the general election in November.
For Dial, the June 3 contest is all about protecting the district's power in the Senate.
"Experience is very important in the Senate," said Dial, who has been in the Legislature, off and on, since the 1980s. "When you're from a rural district, it's very important to be able to stand toe-to-toe with the seven people who represent Jefferson County."
For Sprayberry, that experience — most of which Dial picked up as a Democrat — is a key reason to vote against the long-time senator.
"I believe Sen. Dial is still a Democrat," Sprayberry told The Anniston Star last year. "I don't believe he represents the values we believe in as Republicans."
Multiple attempts to reach Sprayberry for this story were unsuccessful, but in past he has told reporters he intends to work for smaller government, gun rights, lower taxes and states’ rights.
Sprayberry works as a private investigator in Heflin, and said last year that he came close to running against Dial in 2010. That was Dial's first run as a Republican after a long stint as a member of the Democratic majority that then ran the Legislature.
"I've been an ultraconservative all my life, and I was in an odd position as a Democrat," Dial said.
On his website, Sprayberry said that when he was young, coming from a Democratic-dominated state he "thought" he was a Democrat. A visit to a Democratic student group during his years at Auburn University changed all that.
"I walked into a room full of radical gay and lesbian students and tree-huggers threatening to kill cows to protect the environment," Sprayberry’s website states.
Dial said conservative positions such as low taxes and property rights appeal to him largely because of the rural nature of his district. Low taxes are key to the profitability of farms, he said, and rural landowners want to be left alone.
"We live in rural Alabama because we choose to, because it's the lifestyle we want to have," he said.
On Goat Hill, Dial is as well-known for proposing high-tech projects as he is for lobbying for rural counties. Earlier this year, he tried to get lawmakers to approve a $100 million bond issue to help schools replace traditional textbooks with e-readers, and he was also behind the creation of a commission to lobby for a commercial spaceport in Alabama.
The e-textbook proposal ground to a halt in the Legislature largely due to opponents’ concerns that poor districts wouldn't be able to foot their share of the bill, as well as concerns that reading devices would be obsolete by the time they're paid off.
Dial counters that small rural systems with few resources have often been the first to adopt e-textbooks. He said paper textbooks last only about seven years and are often out-of-date when they reach students.
"If you're buying a car, you don't say, ‘I think I'll wait until they have one that drives itself,’" he said.
The campaign between Dial and Sprayberry has produced a bruising series of negative ads, but in an interview, Dial said he hadn't had enough contact with Sprayberry to know where their biggest policy differences truly lie.
"To be honest, I don't know that much about his philosophy," Dial said.