Challenger defeats Holcomb appointee to secure GOP nomination for secretary of state

Challenger Diego Morales’ campaign to defeat Gov. Eric Holcomb’s appointee for Indiana secretary of state succeeded on Saturday, when Indiana Republican Party delegates nominated Morales to be their  candidate in November’s general election.

The hotly contested four-candidate secretary of state race was a focal point of the party’s state convention, which some considered to be a referendum on Holcomb as he faced backlash from social conservatives over his pandemic response and veto of a bill to bar transgender girls from K-12 girl sports.

Morales, who played to that conservative base in campaign mailings that bashed the governor and appointee Holli Sullivan, won the race on the second ballot.

Morales earned 847 votes, besting Sullivan’s 561 and David Shelton’s 215. A fourth candidate, Paul Hager, was eliminated in an earlier round of voting after securing only 15 votes.

Many of the more than 1,600 delegates at the Indiana State Fairgrounds erupted in cheers after Morales was declared the winner, as his green-shirted supporters jumped to their feet and waved campaign signs.

Speaking to reporters after securing the nomination, Morales deflected a direct question about whether his win represented a repudiation of the governor.

“My job is right now to unite the party,” Morales said.

During the run-up to the convention, however, Morales sent delegates a campaign mailer that described Sullivan as “Holcomb’s puppet” and criticized the governor as “elitist,” “pro-abortion” and imposing an “authoritarian lockdown” during the pandemic.

State Republican Party Chairman Kyle Hupfer said he viewed Morales’ win not as a commentary on Holcomb but as a reflection of the effort Morales put into his campaign. Morales said he traveled to all of Indiana’s 92 counties during his campaign.

“They [delegates] know Diego. Diego’s been everywhere,” Hupfer told reporters.

Sullivan has served as secretary of state since March 2021 when Holcomb appointed her to finish the term of Connie Lawson, who resigned the post to focus on her health and family. Sullivan could not be reached for comment Saturday after election results were announced.

Because the secretary of state is the chief elections officer in most states, including Indiana, campaigns for the office often get caught up in Donald Trump’s unfounded claims that the 2020 presidential election was “stolen” from him.

The Associated Press has reported that Morales has embraced those claims and called the 2020 presidential election a “scam.”

When a reporter asked him at Saturday’s convention whether he thought the 2020 election was run fairly, Morales did not directly answer the question.

“Joe Biden is in the White House,” Morales said. “Also, let me be clear—he’s doing a horrible job.”

In a speech to delegates before convention voting began, Morales outlined steps he would take as secretary of state to “secure our elections” with “common-sense policies.”

Those policies include, among other things, strengthening voter ID requirements and taking steps to prevent non-citizens from voting.

Morales said he would also establish a voting task force to investigate voting discrepancies and favors shortening the early-voting period from its current 28 days down to 14 days.

Morales, who immigrated to the U.S. with his family from Guatemala as a teen, said it’s “nonsense” to suggest that voter ID laws are racist. He held a copy of his U.S. naturalization certificate, saying it took him 10 years to become a citizen “so why not demand an ID when people vote?”

Morales, 43, served as an aide to then-Gov. Mike Pence from 2013-2017. In 2018, Morales ran unsuccessfully for the GOP nomination for a U.S. congressional seat.

The Associated Press has reported that Morales left two previous jobs in the secretary of state’s office, once in 2009 and again in 2011. On both occasions, Morales had been written up for poor job performance.

Hupfer said he’s not worried about Morales’ electability against Democrats in the general election, especially given the Republican party’s strength in Indiana. “I just don’t think this is going to be an issue. I really don’t.”

Morales will face former deputy attorney general Destiny Wells in the November election. Wells was unopposed in her bid for the Democratic nomination for secretary state, which was officially endorsed at the Indiana Democratic Party convention, also held on Saturday.

The conventions also set the fall matchups for state treasurer and state auditor.

In the Republican convention race for state treasurer, Daniel Elliott beat out challengers Lana Keesling, Elisa Nieshalla and Pete Seat. This fall, Elliott will face Democrat Jessica McClellan, now the Monroe County treasurer.

For auditor, Republican Tera Klutz will run against ZeNai Brooks, controller at Cummins Inc.

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