Saying grace was the only difference from other family gatherings when a couple of dozen members of the Collins-Greenup clan gathered near Clinton on Tuesday to watch election returns.

“We added, ‘Thank you Lord for what’s about to happen,'” Rickie Collins recalled as the family prayed over chicken and dirty rice.

By the end of the evening, Gwen Collins-Greenup would surprise Louisiana’s political establishment to win a spot in the Dec. 8 runoff for the state’s third highest position. She bested seven of nine largely unknown and poorly funded candidates seeking to fill out the remaining year of Tom Schedler’s term as secretary of state.

Spending roughly a half-cent for each vote received, the Democrat got 289,097 votes to interim Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin’s 298,657 votes. He spent about 83 cents per vote received.

Four months ago, Collins-Greenup was the confidential assistant to Carlos Sam, superintendent of the East Feliciana Parish School Board. She surprised Sam by resigning to run for secretary of state. Sam said he was somewhat sanguine thinking his reserved but detail-oriented aide was embarking on a Quixotic quest. Come Tuesday night, that thought hadn’t changed.

“I was in my bed looking at the results, and I was just flabbergasted,” Sam said. “I’m still trying to figure things out. I mean, she didn’t have any name recognition, even in this parish.”

At the Collins-Greenup home, the candidate was walking around the house when she heard cheers from the living room. A local news anchor had asked anyone who knew her to ask her to call the television station because they didn’t have her number and Collins-Greenup was in the runoff, Rickie Collins recalled.

“She surprised a lot of people, but it didn’t surprise me. I expected it, because, just the way she is,” said Collins, an uncle. His brother’s daughter, a reader who always had a book in her hand, is determined and has always studied what needs to be done, then methodically goes about accomplishing the task at hand.

But it can be fairly said that Collins was one of the few thinking she would do so well. Her only previous political experience was 2015 when she lost large in a race for East Feliciana Parish clerk of court. She had appeared at only a few forums for secretary of state candidates. She wasn’t invited to most because she had so little money – about $2,100, including $900 fee to get her name on the ballot. The state Democratic Party had endorsed her Democratic rival, Baton Rouge’s Renée Fontenot Free, as had the unions and most local party organizations.

Most of the attention was put on the six Republican candidates.

Collins-Greenup said she traveled the state and spent time talking to voters one on one. “If I was just jogging or something, I’d stopped to talk with them,” Collins-Greenup said.

Her message was the same.

“We currently have nearly 3 million registered voters, but less than 15 percent of those voters are participating. That means about 450,000 people are making decisions for 4.6 million,” Collins-Greenup said. “We need a leader who will go to the schools, to the community, to talk about the importance of voting.”

Collins-Greenup holds Bachelor of Science and Master of Science degrees in accounting from Liberty University, which was founded in Lynchburg, Virginia, by evangelist Jerry Falwell. She also has a Master of Divinity degree in professional ministries from Liberty University Baptist Theological Seminary. She graduated from the Southern University Law Center in May and will take the bar exam in February. In the meantime, she is a candidate for a master of tax law at Villanova University School of Law.

The wife of Tarries Greenup and mother of two sons, both in college, Collins-Greenup has a long career as a notary public, title insurance producer and land abstractor. She has worked in the traffic section of the Baton Rouge City Court and was a deputy for the East Feliciana Parish Clerk of Court's Office.

Vincent Williams went to Collins-Greenup when he was trying to set up the Community Feliciana Track and Field Association last yeat. He needed help putting together the paperwork to ensure a nonprofit status for the community group that gave students something to do over the summer.

“Gwen is the type if you give her task to do, she’s going to do the research. She's going to find out exactly what needs to be done. And she’s going to do it by the book,” Williams said. “If she told me to sign here and sign there, I did. That’s how much confidence I had in her.”

“She’s very humble whenever she speaks. She talks about what she knows, not playful, but truthful,” said Michael Bradford, a cousin. “She understands how churches operate.”

Her biggest asset was her connection in the African-American church community. She is the daughter of the well-known pastor at Riverside Baptist Church, Terry Collins.

She taught Bible School at a couple of churches, worked in youth ministries at others while remaining active in father’s church near Norwood.

While the mainstream candidates focused on forums and events organized by Republicans, the dominant party in Louisiana, political observers overlooked the importance churches play in the lives of many African-Americans, said Albert Samuels, a political scientist at Southern University.

“The churches have always been a good organizing base,” Samuels said. In addition to services, the churches hold many dinners and events that bring together people active in the community. It’s an introduction from the pulpit or over a meal, where a candidate can stand out, particularly when other unknowns share the ballot, he said.

She barnstormed the state, speaking at events in small churches. For instance, one night in October she was at the pulpit with a few of her opponents in the sanctuary of Greenwell Springs Baptist Church in East Baton Rouge Parish. The next day, she drove 240 miles to appear as the only candidate at Homer’s Refreshing Springs Church of God in Christ at an event set up by the local branch of the NAACP. Collins-Greenup won both East Baton Rouge and Claiborne Parishes.

Coming from a religiously observant family — children were scolded for not tucking in their shirttails — Collins-Greenup and her Republican rivals agreed on most social issues. They were of the same mind when it came to requiring voters to present a picture ID before casting ballots and opposing voters registering on Election Day. Both issues were politically divisive in secretary of state races in other states on Nov. 6.

But where the Republican candidates in Louisiana warned of hordes of immigrants flooding the polls, a GOP talking point, Democrat Collins-Greenup was dismissive. Having handled elections as deputy clerk of court in East Feliciana Parish, Collins-Greenup said she couldn’t fathom how those in the country illegally could get the identification necessary to allow them to vote.

She and Ardoin also differ on purges of the voter registration rolls.

An ideologically split 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court in June upheld Ohio's controversial "use-it-or-lose-it" law that allows the state to strike voters from the registration rolls if they fail to return a mailed address confirmation form and don't vote for another four years, or two federal election cycles.

Louisiana purges voter rolls, too, but Ardoin said this state's procedures differ from Ohio’s.

“We don’t remove voters for inactivity,” Ardoin said. “If you get removed, it’s because your address can’t be confirmed, so we simply put you on the inactive list and ask you to confirm it, which you can do so at the polling locations.”

“We don’t need to look at the problem but to look at the diagnosis for the problem,” Collins-Greenup countered.

When people move or are evicted, they’re not focusing on changing their addresses with the registrar of voters, she said. Outreach and education are necessary to remind voters to move updating their address higher on their “to do” lists, she said.

“There’s a disconnect in communication with the community,” Collins-Greenup said. “We need to see what we can do to fix that process to get them more engaged and to see what we need to get them to do to stay on the rolls.”

Follow Mark Ballard on Twitter, @MarkBallardCnb.