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Expect the Unexpected in Mississippi Special Election

Thirteen candidates are vying to succeed Nunnelee. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Thirteen candidates are vying to succeed Nunnelee. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The special election in Mississippi’s 1st District is a political handicapper’s nightmare.  

“If anyone tells you they know what to expect on Tuesday, they are lying to you,” said Casey Phillips, a GOP ad maker who is working for Republican Greg Pirkle.  

Pirkle, an attorney from Tupelo, is just one of 13 candidates seeking the northeastern Mississippi-based seat, left vacant in February following the death of GOP Rep. Alan Nunnelee.  

What Magnolia State Republicans agree on is that no candidate is expected to capture the 50 percent necessary to win outright, meaning the race will head to a June 2 runoff with the two highest vote recipients.  

And no one is willing to predict which duo of candidates will clear that hurdle.  

“As soon as you find out, let me know, because I sure as heck don’t,” said Hayes Dent, a Mississippi GOP operative who is not working for any of the candidates.  

Multiple GOP operatives said State Transportation Commissioner Mike Tagert and Alcorn County Prosecuting District Attorney Trent Kelly are in the top tier.  

Both entered the contest with a campaign operation and base of supporters — something Republican operatives say is key in a condensed election expected to see dismally low turnout. Kelly, too, has the endorsement of Tori Nunnelee, the widow of the district’s former congressman.  

With such low turnout expected, Mississippi Republicans say fewer than 100 votes could separate the second- and third-place finishers.  

“This really is where grassroots organizing really matters; who really does have an organization, and again I think that’s where Kelly and Tagert have the best advantage in that regard,” said one Mississippi Republican operative not affiliated with a campaign.  

Still, there is a path for nearly anyone in the pack.  

There’s emergency room physician Starner Jones, who put more than $365,000 of his own wealth into the race. GOP operatives say Jones, a tea party-affiliated Republican who lived across the state line in Tennessee before the special election, has appeal to the ultra-conservative electorate . But reports on pornographic passages from a novel Jones wrote could hurt his chances.  

Collins, a state legislator from Tupelo, is the only woman in the field — which operatives say could give her a path to the runoff. She put more than $140,000 of her own money into the race, mostly for television ads in DeSoto County, a suburb of Memphis, Tenn., that makes up more than half of the district’s population.  

Boyce Adams, a software company executive who lost a race for Public Service Commission in 2011, was one of the first to jump into the race. He has spent nearly $250,000 of his own money and has been on the television airwaves for weeks.  

Businessman Sam Adcock raised a respectable $105,000, and put in another $120,000 from his own pocket. Adcock recently earned the endorsement of his one-time boss, former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott.  

Pirkle raised $191,000, and invested an additional $100,000 from his personal funds for creative ads that could help at the polls.  

Itawamba County Prosecuting Attorney Chip Mills raised $120,000 for the contest — $30,000 of which is a personal loan to his campaign. Mills is the son of Michael P. Mills, a federal judge who once served in the Mississippi state House and on the state Supreme Court.  

Former Jackson City Councilman Quentin Whitwell, who recently moved back into the district, raised $119,000 for the contest and is one of the few candidates not to open his own wallet for the campaign.  

Rounding out the GOP pack is former Eupora Mayor Henry Ross, who ran in a primary against Nunnelee in 2012 and came in a distant second. Ross put $75,000 from his pocket into the race, and could garner some of the tea party vote.  

Candidates’ party affiliations will not be listed on the ballot. But there is one self-identified Democrat running: attorney Walter Zinn Jr.  

Zinn could advance to the runoff by coalescing the Democratic vote, though it’s unclear if the paltry $11,000 he raised for the contest is enough to bring people to the polls.  


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