JACKSON — Democrat Walter Zinn and Republican Trent Kelly will spend the next three weeks competing for support in a north Mississippi congressional race after emerging from a field of 13 candidates in a special election.
Following Tuesday’s vote, the two now advance to a June 2 runoff, with the winner serving most of a two-year term started by Republican Rep. Alan Nunnelee, who was 56 when he died of cancer in February.
Zinn, 34, of Pontotoc, is an attorney who has worked as a political consultant. He was the only Democrat in the contest Tuesday and appears to have been helped by a splintering of the vote among a dozen Republicans.
Kelly, 49, of Saltillo, is a district attorney for seven counties, about one-third of the state’s 1st Congressional District.
Parties were not listed on the ballot, but candidates told voters their political affiliation.
With all precincts reporting, Zinn held a slight lead over Kelly, but history shows a Democrat could have difficulty winning in a district that has been Republican for most of the past two decades.
Zinn was the only African-American candidate in Tuesday’s election. He campaigned on strengthening health care and public education to improve the quality of life in Mississippi, one of the poorest states in the nation. Zinn said his platform is about making “Mississippi first,” so high school and college graduates will want to stay and make a living.
“It is about making sure people are equipped to be successful,” Zinn said Tuesday night from Tupelo. “You don’t just wish to be great. You have to put things in place to be great.”
Kelly, a military veteran, was supported by Nunnelee’s widow, and the consultant who had run Nunnelee’s campaigns also ran Kelly’s.
“We believe in a strong economy, less regulations from federal government so our small businesses can thrive,” Kelly said Tuesday night from Tupelo. “I believe in a strong military and taking care of our veterans who can take care of this great nation.”
The 1st District stretches across the top of Mississippi, along the Tennessee border, and includes Southaven, Oxford, Tupelo, Columbus and Louisville. It has all of 21 counties and part of Oktibbeha County.
Most of the current 1st District was represented for more than 53 years by Democrat Jamie Whitten, who leveraged his seniority to become chairman of the House Appropriations Committee and brought home big federal money for rural electrification and other projects.
When Whitten didn’t seek re-election in 1994, the seat was won by Republican Roger Wicker, a state lawmaker who pledged to cut federal spending. The GOP has held the seat for all but about 2 ½ years since then; Democrat Travis Childers won it in May 2008 after Wicker moved up to the Senate. Nunnelee, a longtime state senator from Tupelo, defeated Childers in November 2010.
Nunnelee’s 2014 campaign activities were limited because he was undergoing cancer treatment and recovering from a stroke.
Mississippi’s top elections official, Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, said Tuesday’s turnout was “alarmingly low,” and he pleaded with people to honor Nunnelee’s memory by voting.
The other Republicans on the ballot were Boyce Adams, Sam Adcock, Nancy Collins, Dr. Ed Holliday, Dr. Starner Jones, Chip Mills, Greg Pirkle, Henry Ross, Daniel Sparks, Mike Tagert and Quentin Whitwell.
Five of the 13 candidates have been elected to other public offices. Tagert is a state transportation commissioner. Collins is a state senator. Kelly is a district attorney. Ross is a former Eupora mayor. Whitwell is a former Jackson City Council member.
Eight candidates have not held political office. Jones is an emergency room physician. Holliday is a dentist. Adams and Adcock are businessmen. Mills, Pirkle, Sparks and Zinn are attorneys.