By BRIAN A. HOWEY

INDIANAPOLIS – Did Hoosier Republicans nominate an election denier to become the state’s top election official?

When Howey Politics Indiana pressed Republican nominee Diego Morales about an Associated Press report in which he had referred to the 2020 presidential election as a “scam,” his campaign texted this: “I proudly voted for Trump twice, but Joe Biden was elected president in 2020 and legitimately occupies that office today. He is doing a horrible job. There were a number of irregularities in that election, including the secretary of state in Pennsylvania changing election rules only 30 days before election day. Those kinds of actions are unacceptable. I am running for secretary of state to ensure that Hoosiers can trust their vote will be counted.”

But in a March 8 article appearing on the website “Hoosier State Today,” Morales writes: “The recent shameful book and press tour of former Attorney General Bill Barr gives the biased corporate media yet another opportunity to pretend that those of us who maintain deep skepticism regarding the accuracy of the 2020 presidential election suffer from some delusion. Far from it. We have valid reasons to doubt the official vote tallies in key states. In clear contrast to (Secretary of State Holli) Sullivan, let me make my own position on 2020 crystal clear: The 2020 election was flawed and the outcome is questionable.”

Morales continues: “America First patriots remain committed, because it is the wound that will not heal until it is honestly addressed. Electing the right secretaries of state in every state of our union now represents a more important task than ever, as the stewards of our elections.”

His Democratic opponent, Destiny Wells, said on Tuesday, “He’s saying he was misquoted in calling it a scam. I have the article printed where it was written by him. Diego wrote it. How is it that Diego misquoted himself?”

Wells told HPI, “He is a part of the America First coalition of secretaries of state who have other agendas. That means he’s part of that pack, that he’s beholden to the notion that the election was stolen. I know he’s walking that back right now.”

Morales won a second ballot GOP nomination for secretary of state Saturday afternoon, defeating incumbent Secretary Holli Sullivan 847 to 561, while Morgan County Republican Chairman Daniel Elliott won the treasurer’s nod by three votes in a brutal day for so-called “establishment Republicans.”

The party platform also was changed with the term “democracy” replaced with the word “republic” throughout.

Asked what his victory over Sullivan means, Morales answered, “I will say one word: Praise the Lord.” Morales, who accused Gov. Eric Holcomb of “abusing his power” during the COVID-19 pandemic, added, “I’m concerned now about how we can bring everyone together. My job right now is to unite our party so we can win in November. I look to have a good, positive message.”

“This can happen only in America,” Morales told the convention prior to the voting. “This is the American dream. The vision today is to keep that American dream alive. We must secure our elections ... so we can increase voter confidence.”

Morales, who lost a 4th CD race in 2018, vowed to purge voter rolls, limit absentee ballots, and allow voting only on election day. “No one in Indiana cemeteries will be allowed to vote,” Morales said, earning a standing ovation.

Sullivan had been appointed by Gov. Holcomb to finish the term of Secretary Connie Lawson, who retired. Lawson had endorsed Sullivan, but while Holcomb’s approval was 73% in a recent Morning Consult poll, he was seen as a liability in this race. He didn’t officially endorse Sullivan or campaign with her or for her. A mailer from Morales to delegates described Sullivan as “Holcomb’s puppet” as well as an “elitist,” borrowing from Attorney General Todd Rokita’s 2018 unsuccessful U.S. Senate campaign under the slogan “Defeat the Elite.” There had been rampant speculation that delegates would lash out at Holcomb via Sullivan and they did.

After WIBC’s Rob Kendall tweeted, “Overwhelming applause for Morales. Very vocal crowd. Certainly appears @indgop is about to nominate a SOS candidate who left the office under suspect circumstances not once, but twice,” Wells responded with two words: “Bring it.”

Indiana Republican Chairman Kyle Hupfer told delegates that it was time to unite the party. “Words like RINO, they just need to go,” Hupfer said. “I will speak just for myself on this one, we support all Republicans.”

The hybrid Holcomb

Holcomb has been a “hybrid” governor, with one foot with the establishment and the other with the Trumpers. He was party chair under Gov. Mitch Daniels, but he was elected in Trump’s 2016 victory (some argue he might not have won without the big Trump win in Indiana.) Holcomb has supported Trump and Trump-like proposals on most issues with occasional breaks on policy matters, but for some reason he is not viewed as Trumpy enough. Sullivan’s convention loss was the second one by a protege, following Blair Milo’s 1st CD primary defeat by Jennifer-Ruth Green in May. Holcomb did not overtly endorse or campaign with either Sullivan or Milo, but these two races reveal limits to Holcomb’s influence inside the GOP.

Part of the problem is the contrast with “Super Trumper” Attorney General Todd Rokita. Rokita is the darling of the Indiana Trumpers and the emerging state and national “liberty” base. There seems to be no limit to the steps Rokita and his acolytes are willing to take the levers of government to score ideological points.

Diego Morales is one of these acolytes and few Republicans doubt that, if elected, he would not use the secretary of state’s office in the same fashion – advancing numerous ultra-conservative election planks and likely using the statewide office to voice his opinions on social issues as well. The lesser known treasurer candidate, Dan Elliott, identifies with the same “liberty” political movement.

In Indiana, at least for now, the bridge has been crossed. The liberty movement has two of the three positions on the statewide ticket.

It begs the question of how far Team Holcomb and the Indiana GOP will go in supporting Morales, particularly after the nominee accused Holcomb of “abusing his power.”

An opening for Wells

The question remains, do Democrats have a political opening? Only if Destiny Wells and the party make Morales’ election denials a point of contention. They need to:

Concentrate only on the secretary of state race and not the full ticket. Will they make Morales himself the issue and spend money upfront to burnish that message?

Make competence, not ideology, the issue. Concentrate on Morales and his former job controversies. The claim that he was fired or left the secretary of state’s office twice due to poor performance  could resonate with Independents and discourage establishment GOP.

Concentrate the competence issue in areas where the Democrat secretary of state can over-perform and new votes can be gained. Marion County and the donut counties is an obvious area. They should incorporate this race in their efforts to retain CD 1. Another target area would be Sec. Sullivan’s home of Vanderburgh County.

Morales’ nomination opens the door to a potential upset, but the Democrats face a tough environment:

Lack of discipline. They will have trouble limiting the theme to competence and Diego’s poor performance in the government jobs he has held. There are too many other issues from 2020 that they will find too tempting. They will start sounding like Pelosi and Schumer and that will massively turn off prospective swing voters. They can’t help themselves.  

Money – they don’t have any. They will need to tap into the national money that Dems are targeting to SoS races. Indiana is certainly not on the radar as there are more important swing states, however, the weakness of Morales should put this race on the potential list. If the Dems find a way to disqualify Morales – probably best to do it sooner than later.

National trends – President Biden is tanking with approval around 40%. Inflation and high gas and food prices are creating a tough environment, as well as the historic mid-term barrier facing the president’s party.

HPI Interview with Wells

HPI sat down with Wells at a Starbuck’s on the north side of Indianapolis on Tuesday:

HPI: A Democrat has not won this office since 1990. How do you win?

Wells: That office was won in 1980s by Evan Bayh, and then Joe Hogsett was appointed. So Joe Hogsett was the last Democratic secretary of state. He was with me when I kicked off the campaign in January. He told me he was 30 points behind at one point and he just chipped away; going to all the counties to introduce himself.

HPI: Have you polled?

Wells: We are just now starting to work with our pollster. There were just so many variables that needed to be determined, whether it was going to be Diego. Another was where the Supreme Court comes out on Dobbs. The lawyers are hedging; they believe the decision will be released next week, on Monday the 27th. We will take a look at where we are and then on the likability of me, which I believe I’m pretty likable.

HPI: So you had dual strategies in running against Sullivan as opposed to Morales. How does that change now?

Wells: It reminds me of Jonathan Weinzapfel, who went into (the 2020) convention thinking he would face Curtis Hill, and he ended up with Todd Rokita. I talked with him about that because at the time, I was working for Attorney General Hill. That race was going to go totally one direction against Hill, and it went to Rokita. That kind of took the wind out of Jonathan’s sails because Rokita had not revealed that he would be so wild. It is similar for us. But I got the candidate who just reinvigorated the race. Holli was a little milquetoast. I’ve been asked who I would rather run against. Well who I would want to run against and win is Morales. But I don’t want to wish that upon Hoosiers. I think it’s a very dangerous game.

HPI: What is dangerous about Diego Morales?

Wells: He is a part of the America First coalition of secretaries of state who have other agendas. That means he’s part of that pack, that he’s beholden to the notion that the election was stolen. I know he’s walking that back right now.

HPI: His campaign told me he didn’t believe the election was a “scam.”

Wells: He’s also saying he was misquoted in calling it a scam. I have the article printed where it was written by him. Diego wrote it. How is it that Diego misquoted himself?

HPI: This is a Trump state, yet we haven’t had a Democratic presidential candidate wage a full throttle campaign since Barack Obama in 2008. That’s why Democrats like Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden poll around 40%. Do you believe the Democratic Party can be stronger than that?

Wells: For me, I do believe. On Sunday I was getting calls from Republicans. I mean, I’m from Martinsville. I am the black sheep of the family. I do not like it when people vilify Republicans. That’s my family, that’s my hometown, that’s my best friend, who is treasurer on my campaign and is a Republican. I told her, “If you don’t have a party, come and hang out with us for the year and she obliged. I know I’m going to have Republicans voting for me.”

HPI: Are you going to have enough money?

Wells: You’re the only interview I’m doing today, stepping away from the phones. One of the first people I talked to after this was Christina Hale, who said, “You need to get on the phone.” Because, unfortunately, that’s the nature of the beast, making that money, so that come September through November we are running ads and we’re working toward a week of media. Glenda Ritz didn’t have the money to buy paid media, but she kept at it and she had the money to buy a week of media, and then two weeks of media. So that’s where we are.

HPI: I waited in line to vote five hours at St. Luke’s in 2020. Morales said he wants to cut early voting from 28 to 14 days.

Wells: It’s laughable that’s he’s talking about part of his platform being this mobile office, but wants to cut back on voting opportunities for Hoosiers. It seems like his priorities are a little out of whack. We are 46th in the nation in registered voter turnout. There were 1.6 million registered Hoosiers stayed home in 2020, so we’re one of the worst states when it comes to voting. Why would we start cutting back our options? Why would we make voting harder? We already have a strict voting ID requirement and he wants to make it stricter. I don’t know how he wants to make it stricter, other than having your birth certificate. This is ridiculous. It wouldn’t hold up a day in court. That’s another thing, the policies he’s proposing are going to result in lawsuits. He’s taking us down the same road as Todd Rokita. I don’t want to hear he’s saving us money when I know, as a former deputy attorney general, that in litigation that he’s going to be spending money hand over fist on lawsuits.

HPI: What would a “Secretary Wells” do to increase voter turnout?

Wells: Connie Lawson tried to increase voter turnout during the end of her second term and she got some blowback in a partisan way. If you’re going to get the vote out as secretary of state, you’ve got to make sure it’s a 92-county effort, and a bipartisan effort. So I need to walk into the secretary of state’s position, that I’m going to have 92 county clerks, the super majority of whom are Republicans and be able to work with them, and working with their communities where, according to our numbers, that Indiana citizens don’t really think their vote matters. I would want to start talking to Republicans. Like I said this morning; my family, they’re Republicans and they’re not happy with what’s going on. The party left them, so some very powerful Republicans, good Republicans, are going to have to come to terms that they’ve lost control of their party, and what they’re going to do to safeguard democracy. I believe that’s them working with me, and me working with them.

HPI: You worked with Republicans on AG Hill’s staff, right?

Wells: When you work for the State of Indiana, you really don’t have a choice. While I’m a progressive Democrat, I am a very pragmatic Democrat and that means you have to work across the aisle. You don’t run away from Republican administrations because it’s not comfortable for you. I’ve always been a servant leader. My record reflects that. I was not going to work at the attorney general’s office because it was Curtis Hill. When I worked there, it was an office of Democrats and Republicans, but we weren’t there as Democrats and Republicans. We were there as deputy attorneys general. It’s just like the military. Everybody has their secret partisan affiliations, but we’re all there in service first. That makes it easy for me to check my politics at the door when I know there is a greater mission and for this election, that is the state of democracy.

HPI: Morales talks about his military experience and I noticed on Twitter last week he’s not the only one in this race who has been in the military. Talk about your military career.

Wells: Wasn’t that weird? Twice he refused to acknowledge me. He said, “I am the only military veteran running for secretary of state.” It was like, “Wow, it’s been a bad month for women with the (Supreme Court) Dobbs leak. I find it admirable anyone raises their right hand for service, so I am not here to degrade Diego’s military service, but I would say for him the military was an experience but for me, my husband and my children, it was a lifestyle. My husband and I have over 40 years of service. That’s how we met. We’re both military intelligence officers, we’re both lieutenant colonels, both have deployed to Afghanistan, and I draw upon my military experience all the time. When I deployed to Afghanistan, I deployed with the Army Intelligence and Security Command. I was one of three officers in charge of the linguist contracts.  I flew all over Afghanistan making sure that we were abiding by the contracts. I did that with security concerns and threats. I’ve been a commissioned intelligence officer since 2006. My background is in information security. That is all about knowing your threats and safeguarding information from bad actors. That’s exactly what we need in the secretary of state’s office, to abide by best practices, safeguarding our election process from bad actors, both foreign and domestic. That’s where I’m at home.

HPI: How does it feel running as a Democrat in a deep red state?

Wells: It does feel like I’m starting pretty well back. But I have to make ground going into communities and search for votes. Every holiday I break bread with Republicans. My family, they are farmers, all my uncles are members of unions, and so I’m quite comfortable in a room that is more conservative than me. I have no qualms going into the lion’s den. I have not encountered anybody who has been dismissive of me because I’m a Democrat. Our call to action in this campaign is that everybody checks their politics and think about or future and the state of democracy for our children. I think (WIBC’s) Tony Katz said it best, “She’s really good on paper, but what are her policies?” I am willing to check some of my policies in order to save democracy. So I have an open door to Republicans, and I think after last weekend, Republicans are realizing they need to stop feeding the beast and that the secretary of state’s office is so pivotal to 2024 and beyond. I really think we should rise up to that position this year.