Can Hoosier Democrats win back this statewide seat?
Importantville | Adam Wren
Published June 15, 2022
An Indiana Democrat has not been elected to the secretary of state's office since 1989. Destiny Wells—former deputy attorney general and a Lt. Col. with the Army Reserves who did a combat tour in Afghanistan—thinks she can change that. Later this week, at their state convention, her party will nominate her for November’s general election.
In a wide-ranging interview, Wells called the Electoral College “inherently anti-Democratic.”
“If we think how this election mechanism influences Hoosiers’ voting behavior, it’s negatively,” Wells told me. “We know Indiana has a huge turnout issue, and a lot of people have told me they don’t think their vote counts. But if a presidential election weren’t just a case of Indiana being the first state to ‘go red,’ I’m guessing Hoosiers would be more incentivized to turn out because they would see their vote equally matters to say, someone’s vote in a swing state.”
Wells talked about which two Indiana Republicans she thinks have “good hearts,” her strategy to win over libertarians and “donut county moms” and sizes up Hoosier Democrats’ chances this November.
“Look, Indiana is not a red state, is not a blue state,” Wells told me. “It's a purple state with a turnout problem.”
The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Nationally, Democrats are eyeing secretary of state races due to the election denialism we saw in the wake of 2020. Why are you interested in Indiana's race?
When I think of any office that's on the ballot this year, the secretary of state is the most politically minded office. It has the election division in it. To your point, there is a GOP strategy of putting election deniers into the secretary of state offices to prep for 2024.
Currently, the Republicans have had that office for 30 years now. The last democratic secretary of state was Mayor Joe Hogsett, who came to my campaign kickoff and endorsed me off the bat. I had been a deputy chair for state Chairman Mike Schmuhl, and wanting to do more, so I decided to run for secretary.
It fits my background: I am an attorney by trade, but I'm also a military intelligence Lt. Col. with the Army Reserves. I've deployed to Afghanistan with US Army Intelligence and Security Command. And so that background coupled with this availability, I just could not turn down the opportunity to run and really effectuate change.
Democrats need a spark, somewhere, to ignite. And I think that the secretary of state's office will be that spark. I think we can make a very meaningful, purposeful change that will start to turn the tide in Indiana.
Have you been able to tap into national attention about election issues after 2020? Any national donors?
The Association of Secretaries of State had not been that robust before 2020. They have started to really bring in donations and look at their national strategy. And so yes, I'm working on that.
Look, Indiana is not a red state, is not a blue state. It's a purple state with a turnout problem.
I see sometimes the media saying that Indiana doesn't have an election denier candidate, which is absolutely false. [Candidate Diego] Morales is a huge election denier.
What is your bar for an election denier in Indiana? Is it as simple as someone having joined the Texas lawsuit aiming to overturn results of the presidential election? Is it voting to turn the election results? Rhetoric questioning the results? Who in Indiana do you consider to be an election denier?
We'll get to Destiny's definition of an election denier. And then I'll answer it from there.
To me an election denier is anyone who tried to subvert the elections by starting the process of putting those elections directly into question.
When you stir as a public leader, as a candidate, you stir these controversies of whether our Democracy, the underpinnings of our Democracy, are even valid, or even working, then you, as that official, as that candidate are undermining the people's belief in our democratic system.
When you think about possible GOP candidates to emerge from their convention later this week, which candidate is best for your campaign? Gov. Eric Holcomb's candidate and incumbent Holli Sullivan? Diego Morales? Dave Shelton?
I would like to be up against the biggest hack of them all, the biggest huckster, and to me that is Diego Morales. [Publisher’s note: Morales did not respond to an IMPORTANTVILLE message seeking comment]
I would never want to wish it, though, on Hoosiers that we play with fire when it comes to Diego. I'm not so greedy that I just want the best candidate who would contrast me because that's dangerous.
Even if Morales is the candidate, who is the GOP-leaning voter that, come November, will vote Republican on issues such as gas prices and inflation, but then cross over and vote for a Democrat as secretary of state because they're concerned about Democracy's future?
I am absolutely trying to reach that voter.
I grew up in a family of Republicans. My mom's side is all union. But dad's side is all farmers, and they have traditionally been all Republican.
So my mom, who is that moderate Republican in a donut county, told me recently, “I just want things to go back to normal. How do I pull a Democratic primary ballot?”
I want the Republican who can look at the political landscape and see like, hey, a Republican supermajority [in the Indiana General Assembly] is not healthy for us.
Do you think the Electoral College should be abolished?
We’ve witnessed twice in our lifetimes candidates not win the presidency despite the majority of Americans voting for them: Al Gore and Hillary Clinton. If the will of the people isn’t being accurately represented through our current election framework, then why not give something that is inherently anti-Democratic a second look? It’s been a long time since we were thirteen colonies—I think Congress should, especially because I believe it hurts Indiana. If we think about how this election mechanism influences Hoosiers’ voting behavior, it’s negative. We know Indiana has a huge turnout issue, and a lot of people have told me they don’t think their vote counts. But if a presidential election weren’t just a case of Indiana being the first state to “go red,” I’m guessing Hoosiers would be more incentivized to turn out because they would see their vote equally matters to say, someone’s vote in a swing state. But Republicans, especially Indiana Republicans, aren’t going to want to get rid of the Electoral College even if it is anti-Democratic. Why? Seven of the last eight presidential popular votes were won by Democrats. The Electoral College benefits a Republican minority. Regardless, a Secretary of State must uphold the Electoral College whether agrees or disagrees that it’s the best mechanism to install a U.S. President. It’s black and white, right there in the U.S. Constitution.
Cornell Belcher, the Democratic pollster and president of Brilliant Corners Research, has said that 2022 will be the year of the angry mom. Do you agree?
If we just thought, who is the angry suburban mom? It's the donut county mom. We need to concentrate on them. But with that said, we also have a problem making the rest of the state feel left behind.
It's a full-court press, 92-county strategy, but yes, with a focus on those suburban voters.
Will a Supreme Court decision to potentially overturn Roe v. Wade play out in your race?
It absolutely plays out up and down the ballot. It especially plays out for women who are running. But I'll just give you a little history. There is a PowerPoint slide on my computer about Dobbs v. Jackson. I made it last summer. And I started showing it in the Democratic women's circles, [telling them] that this is coming next summer.
And that this is going to be at play in our 2022 races, and we must do something about it. And we tried to start organizing, and many women are organizing locally right now. And so yes, I have always been a firm believer that Dobbs would be monumental across the ballot. And I tell people look, yes, we don't have a trigger law in Indiana. Only the governor can call the state Legislature back into session.
The future of the autonomy of women rests on the political ambition of one man. And that is Gov. [Eric] Holcomb and whether he wants to run for [U.S. Senate] in 2024. And how he needs to build his record to do it.
We need a Democrat somewhere in Indiana's political landscape to push back on it. And Democrats have an entry point, and it is the secretary of state's office, and I am so excited to be the standard-bearer for that movement.
Who is an Indiana Republican you look to and say, “I may disagree with this person on the issues, but they are a good person and want to serve voters as best they can?”
I always used to look to State Sen. Rodric Bray. Rod and I are both from Martinsville. Our families grew up on the same street. I sat at Bynum's and talked to his dad. Watching the state Senate devolve has made me really question if even Republicans who have good hearts have any control over the party.
Do you think he has a good heart?
I know he has a good heart, but his policies suck.
Is there a specific example?
I was so disappointed by the transgender sports ban.
If, as you say, Gov. Holcomb is solely focused on the political calculations of a possible 2024 Senate bid, why would he then take the political risk and cross his base by vetoing that bill?
Maybe the governor has a good heart still, too.
James Carville, who is keynoting this weekend’s INDems’ Hoosier Hospitality Dinner, has said that Democrats have a “wokeness problem.” Do you agree?
I don't think that issue plays well to the Hoosier voter.
I think sometimes we get in our own way. And we want to make a policy perfect before it's implemented. It's just like with Dobbs. We had the numbers in the US Congress to make some change. But then we got caught up on third-trimester abortions. And we didn't move anywhere.
When you look at Indiana Democrats' playing field across the state, including your race in November, what is the realistic best-case scenario for Indiana Democrats in terms of actually winning races and putting points on the board? Not the best-case scenario, but the most realistic best-case scenario?
Obviously, the wonderful congressman, Frank Mrvan, beats Jennifer-Ruth Green and keeps his seat in the 1st Congressional District. We also run a strong candidate for Hamilton County prosecutor. And then Democrats win the secretary of state's office.
I'm looking at all the ingredients on the table out and like it's just baking the cake at this point. There's going to be a bunch of Republicans that go vote for the Libertarian. They don't like their own party, but they cannot bring themselves to vote for a Democrat.
You're saying there could be a Rainwater effect [Libertarian gubernatorial candidate Donald Rainwater outperformed the Democratic gubernatorial candidate in roughly a third of Indiana counties in 2020] in the secretary of state's office where libertarians and disaffected Republicans vote for you?
What percentage do you think libertarians could pull away from the Republicans?
I'm gonna keep those figures in-house.
Are you going to have enough money to go up on TV?
Glenda Ritz [the former Superintendent of Public Instruction] didn't have enough money to go on TV. And then all of a sudden she had money—enough money for a week, and then enough money for two weeks. Getting on getting on TV is a big goal.