Tupelo Mayor Jason Shelton

The already dramatic U.S. Senate special election again shifted Tuesday as Democratic candidate and Tupelo Mayor Jason Shelton announced he is dropping out of the race.

Shelton said on Tuesday that the uphill battle to win the race featuring three high-profile candidates led to his decision.

“The nature of this special election, with a short qualifying period, was such that potential candidates had to make quick decisions about qualifying,” Shelton said in a statement. “The historic significance, and rare opportunity, of this special election was also not lost on me.”

The move leaves a single leading Democrat, former congressman and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy, running against two Republicans, incumbent Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith and anti-establishment conservative Chris McDaniel.

Little-known Democratic candidate Tobey Bartee of Gautier is also running, though he has not listed his candidacy with the Federal Election Commission.

Shelton, the 42-year-old mayor of Tupelo and moderate Democrat, was expected to split some Democratic votes with Espy. As Hyde-Smith and McDaniel battle for Republican votes, Shelton’s disqualification leaves a single option for Democratic bonafides.

“I respect and honor Mayor Shelton’s decision to exit the Senate race at this time,” said Bobby Moak, chairman of the Democratic Party. “His political acumen coupled with always placing others before himself makes it abundantly clear that Mayor Shelton has a bright future in politics.”

After former Sen. Thad Cochran retired on April 1, Gov. Phil Bryant appointed Hyde-Smith, the former state Agriculture Commissioner, to hold the seat through the Nov. 6 special election.

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Bryant set a qualifying deadline of April 24 for potential candidates. A relatively unknown candidate outside northeast Mississippi, Shelton announced his candidacy on April 3 – the last of the four candidates to do so.

The special election is open to candidates from any party without limit. If no one earns a 50 percent majority on Nov. 6, the top two vote-getters will square off in a runoff on Nov. 27.

Also on Nov. 6, U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker is seeking another six-year term. Wicker, who faces little-known businessman Richard Boyanton in the June 5 Republican primary, will face the winner of a six-way Democratic primary featuring state House minority leader David Baria, longtime state Rep. Omeria Scott, and venture capitalist Howard Sherman.

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Adam Ganucheau, as Mississippi Today's editor-in-chief, oversees the newsroom and works with the editorial team to fulfill our mission of producing high-quality journalism in the public interest. Adam has covered politics and state government for Mississippi Today since February 2016. A native of Hazlehurst, Adam has worked as a staff reporter for AL.com, The Birmingham News and The Clarion-Ledger and his work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post and Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Adam earned his bachelor’s in journalism from the University of Mississippi.