NESBIT — On a muggy evening in northern Mississippi, just a few miles from the Tennessee line, Republican congressional candidate Trent Kelly talked about his job as a district attorney for seven counties and his experience as a military veteran, with three deployments during 29 years in the National Guard — two of them in combat.
“We must defend this nation against all enemies, foreign and domestic, with a strong national defense. And we must take care of our veterans who have taken care of this great nation,” Kelly said, getting applause Wednesday from a few dozen casually dressed people at an outdoor, after-work reception.
He called for a strong, pro-business economy with a minimum of government interference, saying government should “get out of the way and let our great American minds create jobs that pay a good wage and keep Mississippi and America strong.”
Kelly, 49, of Saltillo, faces Democrat Walter Zinn, a 34-year-old attorney and political consultant from Pontotoc, in a Tuesday runoff for an open U.S. House seat in north Mississippi’s 1st District. It’s been held by Republicans for most of the past 20 years.
The winner will finish most of a two-year term started by Republican Rep. Alan Nunnelee, who died of brain cancer in February. Nunnelee first won the seat in 2010 and was ill during most of the 2014 election cycle. He died shortly after beginning the current term.
Party labels don’t appear on special-election ballots in Mississippi, but the candidates have made their political affiliation clear. The field started with 12 Republicans and Zinn as the only Democrat.
Zinn is also the only African-American in the contest, and he comes from a family that includes generations of Baptist church leaders in and around Pontotoc. He tapped into an extensive network of family and church connections and campaigned in areas with strong Democratic organizations to lead the May 12 election with 17 percent of the vote. He was followed by Kelly with 16 percent.
Zinn is working to build on his momentum. But Republican leaders note that the GOP candidates collectively received 83 percent in the first round of voting, and they say that’s a strong indicator of the runoff’s likely outcome.
During a rally Thursday outside Tupelo City Hall, Zinn talked about strengthening public schools to improve Mississippi’s future.
“We need someone who is going to fight for making sure our children can stay here when they graduate from school instead of looking for finances and salaries that merit their skills in other states,” Zinn told about 30 supporters. “We have the brightest here in Mississippi. We have proven we have the most talented. We need leaders who are going to commit to giving them somewhere to live and stay and work.”
In an interview afterward, Zinn touted his experience working for the city of Jackson to secure state and federal money for economic development and public-works projects and said he would not need on-the-job training to know how Washington operates.
Zinn said he wants to improve, but not repeal, the federal health care law President Barack Obama signed five years ago. He also expressed frustration that the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee have not put money into his campaign in this off-year election.
“I think that there’s disbelief in Mississippi actually voting Democrat,” Zinn said of the national groups.
Minnie Shumpert of Tupelo, a retired Tupelo schools dietitian, said she likes Zinn’s message about improving education and leveraging other government programs to help people create better opportunities to earn a living.
“He’s really concerned about single moms and health care and education,” Shumpert said.
Certified results show 88,364 people voted May 12. The low turnout prompted Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann to issue a statement midway through the day urging people to vote to honor Nunnelee’s memory. Turnout typically decreases during runoffs, but Zinn and Kelly are trying to keep their supporters motivated.
Zinn notes that north Mississippi is conservative, but not uniformly Republican. Democrats still hold many local offices. Before Republicans started dominating the area’s congressional district, the seat was held for 53 years by Democrat Jamie Whitten, who became Appropriations chairman and brought millions of federal dollars to one of the poorest states in the nation.
DeSoto County, just south of Memphis, Tennessee, for years has been Mississippi’s fastest-growing county. It’s also heavily Republican, making it an important campaign target for Kelly, who finished a distant 11th place in DeSoto County on May 12, behind other nine Republicans who spent more time and money there — and even behind Zinn, who finished fourth in DeSoto County that day.
Earl Ward, a Marine Corps veteran who attended the Kelly reception at the home of a county supervisor, said he’ll vote for the Republican on Tuesday: “I’m just glad to know we’re going to have a man going up there who’s got military experience. … They have an insight that other people don’t have.”