This story was updated May 22, 2018, at 11:11 p.m. with more information.
Ralph Van Pelt Jr. will remain Georgia's Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit Superior Court judge after a nail-biting victory over his first opponent in 22 years.
Unofficial results from Tuesday's non-partisan election show Van Pelt finished 745 votes ahead of Melissa Hise, a Summerville, Georgia, attorney who started a non-profit supervised visitation center for parents and children.
But for much of the night, Van Pelt and Hise traded the lead. At one point, Hise was up by one vote. Results continued to trickle in from Chattooga, Dade and Walker counties. In the end, roughly 1,500 early votes in Catoosa County propelled Van Pelt to victory. He finished with 7,533 votes to Hise's 6,788.
"I chalk it up to getting out and working and having good people helping," Van Pelt said afterward.
Since his appointment to the bench in 1996, Van Pelt has never faced an opponent in the circuit, which covers Catoosa, Chattooga, Dade and Walker counties. But after he unsuccessfully tried to usurp Kristina Cook Graham as the circuit's senior judge in October 2016, Graham's father, Summerville lawyer Bobby Lee Cook, promised Van Pelt a "blood sport" of an election.
Anticipating a political fight, the judge started drumming up support last fall. After Hise announced her run in mid-January, about half of the $43,000 she raised for her campaign came from Cook and his associates, according to contribution reports through March.
"I want to thank all of my volunteers and supporters," Hise said Tuesday night. "It's been a great experience for me overall and I just appreciate the experience and want to congratulate [Van Pelt]."
Hise said she wanted to take Van Pelt's seat to advocate for more individualized treatment for defendants. After graduating from the Cumberland School of Law in Birmingham, Ala., in 1993, Hise clerked for the Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit's four superior court judges, including Graham, before launching her non-profit, Four Points.
During her campaign, Hise said she could use her background to help the circuit introduce mental health and veterans courts in the future. The Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit became one of the last circuits in Georgia to add accountability courts when it launched a drug court in 2016, though it wasn't for lack of trying. Catoosa County Sheriff Gary Sisk told the Times Free Press in 2016 that he pushed years ago for a drug court but was rebuffed by now-retired Judge Jon "Bo" Wood.
Still, some voters said they favored Van Pelt's experience. He prosecuted the Corpsewood murders in Trion, Georgia, in 1982, did defense work for a while, and then unseated Red Lomenick, the district attorney and his former boss, in 1988. Van Pelt served as the circuit's district attorney until his judicial appointment in 1996.
Careyee Bell, of Trenton, Georgia, who used to work in probation, said Tuesday that she respected Van Pelt's decisions from the bench.
"He's very fair," she said. "And I think he does a great job."
Others said Van Pelt ran a negative campaign, pointing to a mailed advertiser to voters with a socket puppet on the front. The implication? Hise was a pawn for Cook.
"She's run a clean campaign," said Joyce Blaylock, Hise's aunt, who campaigned for her on the sidewalk near the Trenton precinct. "All her supporters, she asked that they run a clean campaign. She's addressed the issues. She's stayed with the issues. And she's not sent out any ugly flyers."
Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @zackpeterson918.