- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 3, 2015

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - Republican Trent Kelly says that as Mississippi’s newest member of the U.S. House, he will work to strengthen national defense, protect veterans’ benefits and reduce federal regulations.

Kelly won a special election Tuesday to fill a seat left vacant in February when Republican Rep. Alan Nunnelee died of brain cancer. Kelly will serve most of a two-year term that Nunnelee started shortly before his death at age 56.

“We ran a very simple campaign, and it was about who I am and why I want to be a congressman,” Kelly told supporters at his victory party Tuesday night in Tupelo. “God is first in my life.”

Kelly, 49, lives in Saltillo and is a military veteran who did two tours of combat duty in Iraq. He is district attorney for seven counties - about one-third of north Mississippi’s 1st Congressional District.

He received 70 percent of the vote Tuesday, and Democrat Walter Zinn received 30 percent. Zinn is a 34-year-old attorney and political consultant from Pontotoc and was making his first run for public office.

Zinn and Kelly moved into the runoff by finishing in the top spots of a 13-person race three weeks ago.

The 1st District seat has been held by Republicans for most of the past 20 years. Kelly received support from Republicans, including Gov. Phil Bryant and Nunnelee’s widow, Tori. He also outspent Zinn, who received little backing from national Democratic groups.

If Zinn had pulled off an upset, he would have become only the third African-American congressman in Mississippi since Reconstruction.

Nunnelee was first elected in 2010 and won a third term in 2014 as he struggled with health problems. In an interview Tuesday night with the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, Tori Nunnelee praised Kelly’s military service and called him a “humble man.”

“I think Congressman Kelly will represent us well,” she said.

The 1st District includes all of or part of 22 counties, stretching from the Tennessee line down to Winston County in central Mississippi. Before the seat became controlled by Republicans, it was held for 53 years 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.

Turnout typically decreases between an election and a runoff, but it increased for the runoff in this race: 88,364 people voted May 12, and more than 98,200 voted Tuesday.

Now, the only vacant seat in the 435-member U.S. House is 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. With Kelly joining the House, Republicans will hold 246 seats and Democrats will hold 188.

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

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