Brandon Presley, the Democratic candidate for governor, speaks to supporters at St.Luke M.B. Church in Dundee, Miss., Wednesday, May 3, 2023. Credit: Eric Shelton/Mississippi Today

DUNDEE — Democratic gubernatorial candidate Brandon Presley on Wednesday night rattled off a list of talking points about Medicaid expansion and New Testament theology to about 50 people crowded into pews at St. Luke Missionary Baptist Church in Tunica County. 

But what resonated most with many of the attendees in the tiny Delta community Dundee wasn’t Presley’s thoughts on the state’s infamous welfare scandal or the jabs he made at incumbent Republican Gov. Tate Reeves – it was that he simply showed up to ask for their vote. 

“This is the first time that I can remember someone running for governor ever coming to Tunica, Mississippi,” the Rev. McKinley Daley, the pastor of the church, said. 

Candidates for governor have made brief stops in Tunica before, but the minister’s sentiment underscores that the majority-Black region of the Mississippi Delta often feels left out of the equation when it comes to statewide elections. 

The rationale for traveling to smaller communities, Presley says, is part of his strategy of shoring up needed votes and a campaign promise that he made in January to visit places that “haven’t seen a candidate for governor in years.”

The former Nettleton mayor and current public service commissioner is expected to court independents and moderate conservatives to his campaign, but his primary task will be attracting support from a broad spectrum of Mississippi Democrats that traditionally make about 40-45% of the state’s electorate. 

To accomplish that goal, the four-term utilities regulator believes he’ll have to venture into sparsely populated regions of the Magnolia State and make his campaign pitch that his Republican opponent doesn’t deserve a second term in office. 

“Are you going to come to Coahoma County?” an attendee asked Presley on Wednesday. 

“Yes ma’am, I’m going to come there and to the 81 other counties in this state,” Presley responded. 

Despite his early campaign energy, the presumptive Democratic nominee faces a difficult path to the Governor’s Mansion this year.

Democrat Jim Hood received 1,645 votes in Tunica County, and Republican Tate Reeves only garnered 637 votes. Though Hood, who is also white, outperformed his Republican opponent, neither were able to attract many votes from the county that currently has around 6,100 active voters. 

About 75% of the state’s Democratic base of voters are Black, and Presley will have to encourage them to vote in the August and November elections — a failed objective for many recent white Democrats.

Pam McKelvy Hamner, who is Black, asked the white politician from majority-white Lee County how he would address the Magnolia State’s racial inequities and build a broad coalition of voters that crosses demographic lines. 

“Look, I’m white, and I’m country,” Presley answered. “And I can’t do anything about that. You know, that’s the facts. But what I can do is get up here today and send a signal from the governor’s office that we work for everybody. That the health of Tunica County impacts Tupelo.” 

But Presley, for now, appears to have forged relationships with Black leaders, where past white statewide candidates have not. 

U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, Mississippi’s only Democrat in Washington, endorsed Presley’s bid for governor on the same day the gubernatorial candidate announced he was running for the highest office in the state. Four years ago, Thompson never publicly and directly endorsed Hood.

State Rep. Robert Johnson III, the House Democratic leader in Mississippi, was quoted in a New York Times editorial on Thursday highlighting Presley’s early name ID challenges he will have to be overcome if he hopes to earn the votes of Black voters. 

“In those neighborhoods, he’s still a white guy that nobody knows,” Johnson told the Times. “But he’s not afraid to embrace the African American vote in this state. He’s made commitments to do things that other candidates don’t do. It’s early yet, but the governor has been so bad that I think this time might be different.”

After the Wednesday event in Dundee, Tunica County Supervisor James Dunn, a Democrat who is Black, told Mississippi Today that he was not surprised Presley visited the Delta hamlet to speak to voters because he has previously worked with him, north Mississippi’s utilities regulator, on rural projects for the area.

“I feel like he’s not taking the Black vote for granted,” Dunn said. “Most Blacks are Democrats, but that shouldn’t be an excuse. I feel like he’s made serious efforts to build relationships with Black voters that other white officials and candidates in the past haven’t.” 

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Taylor, a native of Grenada, covers state government and statewide elections. He is a graduate of the University of Mississippi and Holmes Community College. Before joining Mississippi Today, Taylor reported on state and local government for the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, where he received an award for his coverage of the federal government’s lawsuit against the state’s mental health system.