By EMILY WAGSTER PETTUS
JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - A Democratic mayor dropped out of a special U.S. Senate race in Mississippi on Tuesday, leaving four candidates in the contest to serve the final two years of an unexpired term.
Tupelo's Jason Shelton said that "this election, at this time, is not right for me."
Longtime Republican Sen. Thad Cochran, 80, resigned April 1 amid health concerns. Gov. Phil Bryant appointed Mississippi's second-term agriculture commissioner, Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith, to temporarily succeed Cochran. She was sworn in April 9.
Hyde-Smith is among four candidates remaining in the Nov. 6 special election. Party labels won't appear on the ballot, and there are no primaries for the special election. However, candidates tell voters their party affiliation.
Others remaining the special election are Mike Espy, a Democrat who served in the U.S. House from a Mississippi Delta district before serving as President Bill Clinton's first agriculture secretary; tea party-backed Republican state Sen. Chris McDaniel, who came close to unseating Cochran in a bitter GOP primary in 2014; and Tobey Bartee, a Democrat who previously served on the Gautier City Council.
If no candidate wins a majority, a runoff would be Nov. 27.
Republicans in this year's midterm election are trying to maintain their slim Senate majority. Democrats have not held a U.S. Senate seat in Mississippi since John Stennis retired in January 1989, but party leaders are hoping to pull an upset victory in the state, just as they did last year in a special Senate election in neighboring Alabama.
Cochran on March 5 announced his plan to resign, and Espy said within two hours that he intended to run in the special election. Shelton entered the race April 3, drawing criticism from some Democrats who thought the party would have a better chance of winning if they unify behind Espy.
Shelton campaign spokesman Danny Blanton said Tuesday that Shelton was not immediately endorsing anyone in the special election. He also said Shelton was not pressured to leave the race.
The second-term mayor left open the option of running for another office in the future.
"I still feel strongly that we must get beyond the rhetoric that has been so detrimental to progress, and elect a U.S. senator who is intent on working with Mississippians who need help navigating the maze of the federal government, working with other senators to push back the rising tide of debt swallowing our nation, and working to find practical solutions to the many challenges facing people across Mississippi," Shelton said in a statement. "While my heart tells me this election, at this time, is not right for me, I am one of many in the next generation of leaders who are ready to serve for the betterment of our fellow Mississippians."
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