Special election runoff for House seat in Columbus may be dress rehearsal for general election

House District 139 candidates Donald Moeller, Sean Knox, Carmen Rice, Carl Sprayberry and Robert Mallard are vying to replace the open seat formerly held by the late Rep. Richard Smith, a Republican from Columbus. (Credit: drmoellerforga.com, voteseanknox.com; carmenriceforstate.com; Carl Sprayberry; voterobertmallard.com)

ATLANTA — Two Georgia Republicans who virtually tied in a special election held Tuesday to fill the Columbus-area seat of the late state Rep. Richard Smith, will now compete in a May 7 runoff. 

Sean Knox, who heads a pest control company, won only 12 more votes than Carmen Rice, a corporate administrator who’s the former chair of the Muscogee County Republican Party. Each received about 42% of 2,455 votes, finishing far ahead of Republican Donald Moeller, a dentist and oral surgeon; and independent Robert Mallard, a real estate broker. Neither Knox nor Rice earned a majority of votes to avoid a runoff.

The winner of the runoff will represent Smith’s House District 139, which covers parts of Muscogee and Harris counties, through the rest of this year and until Jan. 13. Smith died Jan. 30.

Knox and Rice also are vying to represent the Columbus district for a full two-year term beginning in January 2025, for which they’ll have to compete again with Moeller, who qualified for the May 21 primary. The Republican who emerges victorious in that race will compete with Mallard in the general election in November, along with Democrat Carl Sprayberry, a chef from Muscogee who has no primary challenger.

So, who are the two GOP front-runners hoping to replace Smith, who served in the House for nearly 20 years, rising to the powerful position of Rules Committee chair, and used his clout to bring back considerable resources to his home district? 

Sean Knox, Republican candidate for House District 139. (Credit: voteseanknox.com)

Knox, a third-generation leader of his family’s Columbus-based pest control company, has campaigned on his business acumen and deep community connections. A Columbus native, he has served on the boards of a Boys & Girls Club in Columbus, the Columbus Convention and Trade Center, and the Georgia Chamber of Commerce. 

His campaign website indicates he supports job creation, economic growth and low taxes. During the special election campaign, Knox told local reporters that he, like Smith, is for small government.

“Richard was passionate about limited government but smart government and how government can help the state and the community that it serves, and Columbus benefited from his leadership,” Knox told WVTM-TV. “I will just do the best I can to continue that legacy.”

Carmen Rice, Republican candidate for House District 139. (Credit: carmenriceforstatehouse.com)

Rice, an administrative director with a background in food franchising, was the first woman elected as Republican Party chair in Muscogee County last year. She hosted former President Donald Trump and U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, the conservative firebrand who represents District 14 in northwest Georgia, as headliners at the state GOP convention in Columbus last June.

A self-described America First candidate, Rice is running on a platform that includes supporting public safety and law enforcement, education (including school choice and more funding for teachers), stricter border control, transportation and economic growth. Part of that economic growth includes the proposed $5 billion Interstate 14 project that would run from Texas through Georgia, with a leg stretching from Columbus to Augusta. The state transportation department so far has dismissed the project as too expensive.

 “As a former foster parent, I am committed to furthering foster and adoption care reform, ensuring the well-being of vulnerable members of our community,” Rice stated on her campaign website. She’s also for “efficient, effective and limited” government.

Rice is an avid supporter of Trump and his second presidential campaign, and has echoed his claims of political persecution related to the several criminal cases and civil suits he’s faced over the past two years. 

Donald Moeller, Republican candidate for House District 139 (Credit: drmoellerforga.com)

Moeller, a part-time oral surgeon and the third Republican candidate in both District 139 elections, received 6% of the vote in Tuesday’s special election. If elected to the Statehouse, he vowed to focus on “the Georgia budget” and constituents’ health care and educational needs. “We’re losing our nurses and teachers,” he said. 

Also a proponent of the America First agenda, Moeller said he values free markets, lower taxes, eliminating burdensome regulations that stifle economic growth, border control that protects national security and economic interests, and defending gun rights. 

Noting he served in the military for 10 years and “attended two wars,” he’s also sensitive to the needs of veterans, including those with post-traumatic stress disorder. A former college professor in health sciences, Moeller said he has engaged in “research in neuroscience and bioengineering to stop PTSD.”

Robert Mallard, Independent candidate for House District 139 (Credit: VoteRobertMallard.com)

The independent candidate Mallard, who got nearly 10% of the vote on Tuesday, is an Army veteran who served multiple tours in Iraq and works as a real estate broker. He and his wife, also an Army vet, run a nonprofit that engages youth, seniors and veterans in beekeeping and other therapeutic services to promote self-sufficiency. 

Mallard wants to add more high-paying trades and technical certifications to the education system and develop programs for young adults emphasizing business and entrepreneurship “that opens their eyes to what’s possible, how things work and how they can build or support the economic engines that will keep putting food on their table and raising their standard of living.” 

He supports gun rights, school choice, more resources for law enforcement and first responders, and secure borders, and says he’ll “work across the aisle” to find ways to address rising addiction rates among youth. 

Carl Sprayberry, Democratic candidate for House District 139.(Credit: Carl Sprayberry)

Democrat Sprayberry lost to then-incumbent Republican Smith in the 2020 general election for the same House seat, earning 36% of the vote. In 2022, he ran for the Columbus City Council and won 5% of the vote in a five-person race for an at-large seat.

The 31-year-old chef has an expired campaign website, but his recent posts on X emphasize his strong support of President Joe Biden’s economic policies, reproductive choice, gun control and government-subsidized health insurance. He’d also like the government to regulate social media sites such as TikTok and Facebook, which he said are engaging in “child exploitation."


On March 3, Sprayberry posted a thread on X that said:

 “My platform is basically the same as in 2020, with an emphasis on healthcare access, addressing rising insurance rates in the state, funding for mental health workers, working on addressing increased homelessness throughout the state, continuing efforts to lower crime rates, oversight on how federal infrastructure funds are being spent, and additionally, I would like to introduce an amendment to the state constitution to require any statewide office holder (governor, lt. gov, SoS, etc.) to step down before they could run for a federal office.”

The special election runoff for House District 139 will be May 7. The winner will serve until Jan. 13. 

The 2024 election primary for all 236 General Assembly seats and other state offices will be held May 21.The general election, which includes state and federal races, including the presidential election, will happen Nov. 5.

The 2024 legislative session ended March 29, but lawmakers will continue to convene for committee meetings, interact with constituents and gather to strategize with political allies in the Legislature throughout the rest of the year.

Have questions or comments? Contact Jill Jordan Sieder on X @journalistajill or at [email protected]

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