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  • James Briggs


James Briggs, Indianapolis Star column

June 10, 2024

We're not going to know which Democrat will run for Indiana attorney general until July 13. As campaign cycles go, that is an absurdly long time from now.

That lag means whomever Democrats nominate will have less than four months to campaign in earnest against Todd Rokita, the incumbent attorney general who will be starting on third base in terms of name identification, money and having a R on the ballot. Democrats will need to do everything right and get some unexpected breaks (like Rokita losing his law license) to even have a chance.

Starting in mid-July with long odds is not ideal. Yet, Democrats are doing it that way by choice. They have a contested race at their July 13 convention, where delegates will nominate a general election candidate. That unnecessary contest is draining resources and postponing fundraising.

It's obvious who the general election candidate should be. Destiny Wells is running for attorney general after having made inroads and won more votes than Democrats' U.S. Senate candidate in 2022. She notably won Carmel, which shows she can appeal to moderate Republicans. That's a must-have quality for winning Indiana.

Wells could be running with at least some momentum — except for headwinds coming from within her own party.

Beth White, a former two-term Marion County clerk, is challenging Wells and has influential supporters within the party, per Importantville's Adam Wren. White's support appears more personal than pragmatic. Democrats, particularly in Central Indiana, have complained for a couple years that Wells has been too aggressive about asking for money and pushing for changes within the party. Some have generally described her to me as unlikable.

You know who is unlikable? Rokita.

There is a long list of Republicans who would shove Rokita off a political cliff if given half a chance. Yet, despite murmurs of intraparty opposition, Rokita is unopposed at the upcoming Republican Party convention.

That is a key difference between Republicans and Democrats in Indiana: Republicans like to win.

Whatever the merits of White's candidacy, there is a 0% chance she would win more votes than Wells would against Rokita. That's my view, anyway. White obviously disagrees.

"I know that it was two years ago when Destiny ran statewide, but she lost to Diego Morales, who I would posit to you was not the best candidate," White told me. "I was on TV all the time between 2007 and 2014. I think that you're assessing that, just because she ran two years ago, she's really well known. I don't think there is any empirical data to bear that out."

White isn't wrong about Wells' name ID challenge. She would face the same one, though.

Low-information voters decide elections based on partisanship with little regard for who the candidates are. That's why Wells got clobbered in 2022 even though Morales was one of the worst statewide candidates in Indiana history. Carmel's knowledgeable and engaged voters are not representative of the state. Few people outside Central Indiana knew or cared about the particulars.

It's worth noting that White lost her own statewide race in 2014 when she ran for secretary of state. That's how it goes for Democrats in Indiana. Rokita probably will skate to victory in November, too, regardless of whether he's facing Wells or White. The question for Democrats is which candidate can win a few more votes at the margins and help build a foundation for the future.

If White thinks that's her, then she's right to want to run. Nothing wrong with that. But Democrats egging her on are letting internal drama obstruct the party from competing in its most winnable race (such as it is) during a year when Democrats couldn't find a notable Senate candidate and have a gubernatorial candidate who has struggled to find a running mate.

These are dark days for Democrats. Wells could be a light, if the party would let her. Or, she could decide it's not worth it. Wells is an attorney, combat veteran and lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve who has her sights set on becoming a colonel. She has plenty of things to do besides trying to mount a serious statewide campaign for a party that isn't serious.

Time and again, Democrats find ways to divide themselves and make punchlines for Republicans. Like earlier this year when most Senate Democrats voted against a bill championed by Democratic state Rep. Rita Fleming to require hospitals to offer contraceptives to women on Medicaid who've just given birth.

As IndyStar's Brittany Carloni reported, the bill became a flashpoint on the left because it exempted IUDs, contraceptives placed in the uterus, amid lobbying and false claims that IUDs cause abortions.

The bill in question expanded access to birth control. Full stop. That is generally a priority for Democrats. But many Democrats and left-leaning health care groups opposed it, arguing that the IUD exception was Trojan-horsed into the legislation as part of a national right-wing attack on contraceptives. The bill passed anyway.

Democrats have a persistent temptation to pass up incremental progress in this red state for the sake of internal battles. They're playing 3D chess with one another while they don't even have a seat at the same table as Republicans.

The party has gone from competitive to a joke in less than a decade. Prominent Democrats see no value in running statewide contests in Indiana. Wells is a rising star with a resonant biography who, for some reason, wants to put herself through another one.

Democrats shouldn't coronate anyone. They should promote promising young candidates who prove they can raise money and connect with voters, including Republican-leaning voters, while the party suffers through lean years with a shallow bench.

I reached out to Wells and she didn't want to talk much about the convention race. It might have had something to do with my opening question of, "Why do some Democrats hate you so much?" She didn't answer that.

Maybe it's a bad question, and maybe "hate" is too hyperbolic, but there's nothing rational guiding Democrats' behavior. Democrats who are blocking Wells' nomination need to examine whatever it is they find objectionable about her and compare it to Rokita, who is breezing to reelection while they waste time and money.

Contact James Briggs at 317-444-4732 or Follow him on X and Threads at @JamesEBriggs.


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