Ex-Pence aide shrugs off doubts in Indiana election post bid

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — A former Mike Pence aide is sidestepping previous support for tighter voting restrictions and doubts about the 2020 presidential vote as he tries to avoid turbulence in his campaign for what would typically be a little-noticed election win by a Republican seeking Indiana’s top elections office.

Since Diego Morales defeated Indiana’s current secretary of state for the GOP nomination in June, he’s given scant explanation for dropping his criticism of early and mail voting while Democrats criticize Morales as one of many Republican “election deniers” seeking to win state offices around the country

Indiana Democrats, who last won a statewide race a decade ago, see a chance to defeat Morales in the Nov. 8 election. They are highlighting that he twice left low-level secretary of state office jobs after being written up for poor job performance and questions over whether he’s overemphasized his military service.

Morales largely focuses his campaign on appearances at county Republican events and local festivals, brushing off criticism. He has not joined candidate forums with Democrat Destiny Wells and Libertarian Jeff Mauer and skipped a debate last week with them that was broadcast by public TV stations across Indiana.

Wells said Morales is “sowing seeds of fear and doubt” about elections and that the secretary of state should focus on improving Indiana’s troubles with low voter turnout.

“I think Diego is being very dishonest in where the secretary of state needs to take Indiana in election reforms,” Wells said. “We don’t need to make voting harder to make it more secure and he only wants to make it harder by reducing opportunities to vote.”

Ahead of Morales’ June Republican convention victory over current Secretary of State Holli Sullivan, he wrote an online column in which he called the 2020 election a “scam” while pointing to unfounded claims former President Donald Trump and his allies have made about other states. He called for voter restrictions that included cutting Indiana’s 28-day early voting period in half, eliminating several reasons why people can request mail-in ballots, requiring new voters to prove their U.S. citizenship when registering, and creating an “election task force” that would investigate “shenanigans.”

His single-page campaign website has included no mention of such plans and they don’t come up in his frequent social media posts of greeting voters.

When asked in an interview to explain his shifts, Morales didn’t give a direct answer.

“When I crisscross the 92 counties, I’ve been listening to all Hoosiers, including county clerks, and I have meetings with them and I believe the early voting is working and it will continue to be the same,” Morales told The Associated Press.

The Indiana secretary of state’s office oversees statewide policies for elections, which are run by elected county officials under laws enacted by the Republican-dominated Legislature. Winning the GOP nomination for the office has been tantamount to election victory as Republicans have won by double-digit percentages in six of the past seven times its been on the ballot.

Morales, 43, leans heavily into his life story of immigrating from Guatemala with his parents and sisters, finishing high school in the southern Indiana town of Sellersburg, then going to college at Indiana University Southeast and enlisting in the military before becoming a U.S. citizen.

Morales briefly held secretary of state office jobs in 2009 and 2011 until getting poor performance write-ups that the AP first reported about during his unsuccessful 2018 bid for an Indiana congressional seat. He returned to state government as an aide on Pence’s gubernatorial staff for four years until Pence left to become Trump’s vice president in 2017. Other Pence staffers have defended his work and Pence spoke at a Morales campaign fundraiser last week.

His campaign’s social media pages feature photos of Morales in a camouflage uniform and videos highlighting his service as an Army infantryman.

Military records released by the Morales campaign, however, show he underwent about 3-1/2 months of Army infantry training in 2007 and transferred to the Indiana National Guard. The records show Morales left the National Guard in 2013 without advancing beyond his initial rank of specialist or undergoing additional military education.

Morales said he was proud of his military service but declined to discuss it in any detail.

“My reasoning of joining is simply to give back,” he said. “I believe I signed a blank check to be ready, if needed, for this great country.”

Morales also declined to discuss why he never sought promotion or wasn’t activated when his National Guard unit served a deployment to Iraq in 2008.

“Feel free to call the National Guard or the U.S. Army or the Department of Defense. I’m sure they would walk you through all of that,” Morales said. “You can call them because they are the experts, they will tell you every single detail of this. So, the proof is there that I’m honorably discharged and I’m very proud of it.”

An Indiana National Guard spokesman, however, responded that the only information allowed for release under military regulations are records regarding “duty status, the character of his discharge, his term of service, his awards, his education and his job specialty.”

The Democratic candidate, Wells, a 38-year-old lawyer, released records of her Army service since 2004, including her promotion to her current Army Reserve rank of lieutenant colonel, time as an intelligence officer and active-duty deployment to Afghanistan in 2017.

Wells pivots discussion about military service back to what she calls an erosion of women’s rights with the statewide abortion ban approved by the Republican-dominated Legislature. Wells said that action resulted from the total control Republicans now have over state government and that more two-party balance is needed.

“I went to the ends of the Earth to protect the notion of democracy abroad, to protect women abroad in third world countries so that they have rights like ours secured,” Wells said. “But now I am at home and I am seeing my own rights taken away.”

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