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In GOP-leaning congressional district in Mississippi, runoff is Democrat vs. Republican

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JACKSON, Mississippi — Democrat Walter Zinn got the most votes in a congressional special election in north Mississippi this week, and he and Republican Trent Kelly advanced to a June 2 runoff.

Now, there's the big question: Has Zinn peaked in the Republican-leaning district?

Some fellow Democrats are boasting that Zinn ran a relatively low-budget campaign but still worked hard enough to collect 17 percent of the vote in a field with 13 candidates.

Some Republicans point out that, yes, Zinn got 17 percent — but that means 83 percent went to one Republican or another.

Mississippi's 1st Congressional District encompasses 21 counties and part of a 22nd, Oktibbeha. It stretches from the Memphis suburbs down to Winston County near the center of the state. Although Democrat Jamie Whitten represented most of the current 1st District for more than half a century, the U.S. House seat has been held by Republicans for most years since Whitten retired at the end of 1994.

Some high-profile Democrats fare well in north Mississippi, including state Attorney General Jim Hood, who lives in the small town of Houston, and northern district Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley, who's from the even smaller town of Nettleton.

Republican Rep. Alan Nunnelee, who first won the congressional seat in 2010, was diagnosed with brain cancer as he sought re-election last year. Nunnelee easily won a third two-year term, but he died in February, weeks after being inaugurated.

Although party labels are not printed on special-election ballots, candidates in the race to succeed Nunnelee let people know their affiliation. Twelve were Republicans.

Zinn was the lone Democrat and the only African-American in the contest. He finished first in seven counties — that is, he received the highest percentage of the vote, but because there were so many candidates, the top vote-getter in most counties still received less than 50 percent.

Kelly received about 16 percent of the vote districtwide and finished first in four counties.

Zinn and Kelly now have three weeks to persuade their own voters to return to the polls and to try to pick up new ones. It's a challenge, because turnout typically decreases during runoffs.

One big population base where they can seek support is DeSoto County, where nearly 12,000 people voted Tuesday. That was second only to Lee County, where Kelly fared well. Republican Mike Tagert finished first in DeSoto County and third overall Tuesday, and he immediately pledged his support for Kelly. DeSoto is heavily Republican, so a big turnout there would help Kelly in the runoff.

Zinn, 34, of Pontotoc, is an attorney who has worked as a political adviser for other Democrats, including former Jackson mayors Harvey Johnson Jr. and Chokwe Lumumba. He said he's campaigning on improving schools, health care, job training and other services, and providing "opportunity for everyone."

"We have to quit playing the blame game and politics," Zinn said after learning he had made the runoff. "We play these partisan games. We play this game of race."

Zinn finished first in Benton, Chickasaw, Clay, Lafayette, Marshall, Monroe and Winston counties.

Kelly, 49, of Saltillo, is district attorney in seven counties. On Tuesday, he finished first in Calhoun, Lee, Pontotoc and Prentiss counties. Two of those counties, Lee and Prentiss, are in the district where he is DA.

Kelly says he wants to limit the size of government, reduce regulations, provide for a strong defense and take care of veterans.

"I'm just so humbled to have the support and the vote and the friendship of so many people in this race," Kelly said late Tuesday.

Kelly has collected and spent more than Zinn so far, according to campaign finance reports on the Federal Election Commission website.

Through April 22, the most recent report available, Kelly had collected $117,703 and spent $60,553.

For the same period, Zinn had collected $11,552 and spent $8,794.

The top spender in the race was Dr. Starner Jones of Pontotoc, an emergency room physician, who collected $35,901 and loaned his own campaign $350,000. Jones spent $327,233. He finished in fifth place.

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Follow Emily Wagster Pettus on Twitter: http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus .

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