Gerald Dial, a former Democratic state Senator from rural East Alabama sensed early this year that the Republican Party was poised to regain the majority in both houses of the state legislature for the first time in 136 years. Determined to reenter the Senate after losing a Democratic primary in 2006 to Kim Benefield, who went on to win the seat and is now retiring, he switched parties and ran unopposed for the 13th Senate District’s GOP nomination.

Dial faced an uphill battle; the 13th Senate District, mostly rural with some urban areas around Auburn, has been reliably Democratic on the local level for decades. In addition, Dial’s new Democratic opponent, local attorney and Democrat Greg Varner, was substantially better funded. With early polling data not going Dial’s way, his victory was by no means assured.

“The biggest obstacle [my campaign faced] was the big amount of money my opponent was receiving from outside sources,” says Dial. “Almost $1.2 million was spent on a Senate race in rural East Alabama.” Dial was being outspent across the board: in traditional media, television and radio advertising, and in direct mail. He needed a smarter strategy.

His initial tactic was to spend his limited funds wisely. “We were able to match [Varner] in television, and got better rates by buying before Labor Day,” he says. Dial was also able to trade on his significant advantage in name recognition. “We were highly visible and went to every event,” he says. “We know the area well and our opponent did not.”

 

Another reason for the Dial campaign’s success was strategic polling. Through surveys, he was able to identify one area, Lee County, where both his and his opponent’s name recognition was significantly lower than the surrounding area. Lee County also happened to have the highest portion of undecided voters. “There was one particular county that had a large influx of new residents – it was one of the fastest growing areas of Alabama,” recalled Dial. “We spent probably 50 percent of our time in that one area. [Varner’s campaign] just continued to treat it like any other district.”

Having identified this area where voters were up for grabs, the next step was to increase name recognition and marshal support there. Dial was fortunate to have a committed network of grassroots volunteers and a significant technological advantage: mobile walk books, Blackberries that had maps uploaded to them with lists of voter residences and family members, including information on voting history and median income.

These mobile walk books allowed volunteers to go door to door in the area with the high level of undecideds, make personal contact with voters and track their progress. After speaking with voters, the volunteers could then enter information into the Blackberry, including voters’ impressions of the Senate race, their candidate preferences (or lack thereof) and whether more information should be sent to particular households.

“This was the first time we had that kind of technology, and it was a dynamic that made all the difference in this election,” says Dial. “Just knocking on doors is not a personal as saying: ‘Hi, how is little Jim?’”

 

In contrast, Dial’s opponent employed a shotgun approach, sending out mass mailers that ended up turning off as many voters as it influenced positively. Dial does admit that some of Varner’s messaging was effective and fostered some doubts about Dial that he was unable to counter completely. Varner, for his part, believes that name recognition was not Dial’s problem. “He had been a Democratic senator in this district for 30 years,” Varner points out. However, Varner does agree that Lee County was a battleground area and concedes that he did not give it the sort of special attention that Dial did.

In the end, the targeted approach helped Dial overcome his two-to-one fundraising disadvantage, but just barely. He went on to win back his old seat, now as a Republican, by just 357 out of 37,423 votes cast.

 

Noah Rothman is the online editor at C&E. Email him at nrothman@campaignsandelections.com