JACKSON, Miss.— North Mississippi voters were deciding Tuesday who will fill a congressional seat left vacant by the death of a Republican who had just started his third term.
Polls were open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. CDT for the special-election runoff between Republican Trent Kelly and Democrat Walter Zinn.
The winner will serve most of a two-year term started by Rep. Alan Nunnelee, who was 56 when he died of brain cancer in February.
The 1st District includes all of or part of 22 counties, stretching from the Tennessee line down to Winston County in central Mississippi. Republicans have held the seat most of the past 20 years, but for 53 years before that, the seat was held by Democrat Jamie Whitten, who worked his way up to the chairmanship of the House Appropriations Committee and brought millions of federal dollars to one of the poorest states in the nation.
Kelly, 49, of Saltillo, is a military veteran and district attorney for seven counties, all of which are in the congressional district.
Zinn, 34, of Pontotoc, is an attorney and political consultant making his first run for public office.
They advanced to the runoff from a field of 13 candidates in the first round of voting three weeks ago. Although special-election ballots in Mississippi don’t include party labels, candidates told voters their affiliation. Zinn was the only Democrat, and the only African-American, who ran. He received 17 percent of the voting on May 12, and Kelly received 16 percent.
Kelly has received support from Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant and other Republicans. He has also outspent Zinn, who has received little backing from national Democratic groups.
Zinn comes from a family with generations of Baptist church leaders in the Pontotoc area. He said he believes his message — improving education and health care and leveraging government resources to help people create opportunities — will appeal to voters in Mississippi, a Bible Belt state that has long struggled at the bottom of economic and education rankings.
“They’re in love with a David-and-Goliath kind of story,” Zinn said Thursday in Tupelo. “Someone said myself being last on the ballot just fits into so many Scriptures … ‘The first will be the last, and the last shall be first.’ Those things are rallying points for so many here. I think that considering Mississippi’s history, they identify with being the underdog, they identify with being underfunded. They identify with being left out.”
Kelly has campaigned on cutting spending and limiting federal regulations on businesses. He said at a campaign reception last week in Nesbit that he looks to God for guidance and that his experience in combat taught him to be decisive.
“It teaches you leadership. Not in a book, but you get to actually apply and you get to do a job where ‘no’ is not an alternative,” Kelly said Wednesday. “You have to figure out ways to be successful. It would be the same way in passing bills or getting legislation through. I will not accept ‘no’ for an answer. We’ll figure out the right way and retool or re-equip to do whatever we need to do the things that are helpful to Mississippi.”
After the Mississippi runoff, the only vacant seat in the 435-member U.S. House will be in Illinois, where Republican Rep. Aaron Schock resigned in March amid questions about his spending. The primary in central Illinois’ 18th District is July 7, and the special election is Sept. 10. Neither election will change the partisan balance of the Republican-controlled House. Before Tuesday’s election, Republicans held 245 seats and Democrats held 188.