JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — A Mississippi Republican who advocates removing the Confederate battle emblem from the state flag said Thursday that he's not running for U.S. Senate.

Andy Taggart of Madison said weeks ago that he might enter the special election to finish the term started by longtime Republican Thad Cochran. Taggart was chief of staff in the 1990s for Republican Gov. Kirk Fordice and was later a Madison County supervisor. He said Thursday that although he's not running for Senate, he is grateful for encouragement from friends and family.

"The positive reaction I received all over the state from people who join with me in support of a new state flag gives me great hope that we will see that change become a reality sooner rather than later," Taggart said.

Cochran, 80, retired Sunday, citing poor health. He served six years in the U.S. House before moving to the Senate in 1978.

Gov. Phil Bryant appointed fellow Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith to temporarily succeed Cochran. She will be sworn in Monday and will run in a special election in November.

Three other candidates have announced: Democratic former U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy, Republican state Sen. Chris McDaniel and Democratic Tupelo Mayor Jason Shelton.

The special election winner will serve until January 2021.

Candidates' qualifying deadline is April 24. They won't be identified by party on the ballot, but they are allowed to tell voters their political affiliation.

Taggart issued a public statement in September urging Republicans to take the lead on removing the Confederate symbol from the Mississippi flag. He said some people are concerned that changing the flag would be like erasing history. "But the simple fact is that the flag itself is highly polarizing, when the whole purpose of a state flag is to provide a symbol of unity, around which all of our state's citizens should be proud to rally," Taggart said.

Bryant has said repeatedly that if the flag design is to be reconsidered, it should be by a statewide election. People who voted in a 2001 referendum chose to keep the design. McDaniel has spoken in favor of keeping the flag. Shelton removed it from police headquarters in Tupelo.

Republicans are trying to maintain their slim Senate majority in this year's midterm election. Though Mississippi is a conservative state, Democratic leaders are pointing to their party's victory in a special U.S. Senate election in Alabama in December as proof that the party can compete in the solidly Republican South. The last time Mississippi had a Democrat in the Senate was in January 1989, when John C. Stennis retired.

____

Follow Emily Wagster Pettus on Twitter: http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus .