In Indiana, there’s never been a candidate like Diego Morales.

The Republican nominee for secretary of state was born in Guatemala. Not knowing any English, he immigrated to the U.S. when he was in high school and graduated from Silver Creek High in Sellersburg before attending Indiana and Purdue universities.

Now, Morales is likely the first Latino GOP candidate to run for a statewide office, and the first person of color on the ballot for Indiana’s highest election position.

Just a decade ago, it would have been hard to imagine a Latino running as a Republican in Indiana, which has had only elected a handful of Hispanic legislators, all Democrats.

Currently, state Reps. Mike Andrade (D-Munster) and Earl Harris Jr. (D-East Chicago) are the only Latino legislators in the House. Sen. Rodney Pol Jr. (D-Portage) became the first Hispanic to serve in the Senate in 2021 after he was elected by the Democratic caucus. The three Latinos represent just 2% of Indiana lawmakers.

But that’s changing. This election cycle has seen a record number of Hispanic GOP candidates running for U.S. Congress, including 102 Latinos campaigning for House seats, according to the National Republican Congressional Committee.

The shift comes after the GOP made a concerted effort to recruit more Hispanic candidates following former President Donald Trump’s surge in heavily Latino areas of the country in 2020.

Now, Morales is riding that wave after easily defeating incumbent Holli Sullivan in May for the Republican Party’s nomination for secretary of state.

Oscar Alvarez, secretary of Indiana’s chapter of the National Republican Hispanic Assembly, said Morales’ nomination marks a major shift in the Indiana GOP, and one that could lead more Latinos to engage in the political process.

“This is the first time a Hispanic has been nominated for secretary of state, so this is big,” he said. “It’s huge. And we’re behind him all the way.” Alvarez, who grew up in Texas but has lived in Indiana for more than two decades, helped found the state’s GOP Hispanic assembly chapter last year in an effort to recruit more Latinos into the Republican Party.

The move comes as the state’s Latino population has grown to more than 475,000, according to the 2020 U.S. Census. That’s up about 20% from 2010. The number of Hispanics comprising the state’s total population has grown in the past decade from 6% to 8.2%.

Morales’ heritage is important to Hispanic voters, but it’s also an important step to diversifying the GOP, according to Alvarez.

“The tides are turning, and Hispanics and also Black Americans are saying, ‘You know, we’re a conservative group,’” he said. “We need to start establishing ourselves as a stronghold to say that the GOP can also be very multicultural.”

Throughout his campaign, Morales has used his immigration background to paint himself as a hard worker who learned English, worked two jobs in college and is now living the “American Dream” — a term that comes up multiple times in his political ads.

His campaign also plays up his service in the Army, although his claims to be a veteran have recently come under scrutiny following the release of his discharge forms, which indicate Morales didn’t fulfill his eight-year commitment in the Indiana National Guard.

Morales has tapped his immigration status to make the case for requiring voters to prove their citizenship — a proposal that failed last year in the Indiana Senate after the office of then-Secretary of State Connie Lawson called it “unconstitutional.”

Morales said last year during a Clay County GOP meeting that, if elected, he would strengthen voter ID laws and also look into the possibility of requiring proof of citizenship to vote. He argued that, as an immigrant, he couldn’t be accused of voter suppression.

“I believe that I’m the only Republican who can be the best ambassador for Indiana GOP party to request proof of citizenship,” he said in video of the meeting. “The left and the liberals will not accuse me of voter suppression, because you know what? I’ve been showing proof that I’m a legal citizen myself here in American my whole life.”

Morales has faced fierce criticism from Democrats over other election claims, including his contention that the 2020 presidential election was a “scam” and calling for the number of early-voting days to be cut in half.

He has since walked back those statements, saying President Joe Biden is the “legitimate” president and supporting the current number of early-voting days. Early voting in Indiana begins Oct. 12 and runs through noon Nov. 7.

‘Not a representative of Latinos’

Cynthia Morraz, president of the Indiana Latino Democratic Caucus, said Morales’ election rhetoric might play well with the right wing of the Indiana GOP. But, she said, it’s a major turnoff for the state’s Hispanic voters, who would be most affected by stricter voting laws. “He is not representative of the Latino community,” she said. “I think that where representation is important, it’s also important to elevate the Latino community and make sure we are improving the lives of all Latino community members.”

That’s why Morraz’s caucus has endorsed Democratic candidate Destiny Wells for secretary of state. The Morgan County native and combat veteran has engaged more with the Latino community, she said, and better represents its constituents.

With only 4% of the state’s eligible voting population made up of Hispanics, there isn’t much motivation for Morales to appeal to that demographic, said Vanessa Cruz Nichols, an assistant professor of political science at Indiana University.

She said that’s apparent from his campaign ads, which show Morales interacting with only white constituents. A man with a Hoosier accent does the voiceover of the video on his campaign website to avoid any bias toward his accent, Cruz Nichols added.

“He’s not really interested in catering to or appealing to diverse Latino voters,” she said. “Morales is being strategic and is using a whitewashing strategy so as to not alienate white voters. He is treading lightly.”

However, in televised interviews, Morales has emphasized that he wants to be an inspiration to Latinos interested in seeking political office. His Facebook page also highlights his trips to Latino festivals around the state. Morraz of the Hispanic Democratic caucus said that, if anything, Morales’ nomination is proof that the long-held assumption that Latinos only vote Democrat is eroding.

The Hispanic community has always held diverse political views, she argued. Now, bolstered by the larger- than-expected turnout for Trump in 2020, red-leaning Latinos are taking action by running as Republicans. “We are starting to see that here in Indiana, but slowly,” Morraz said. “We do want competitive races, but we want to make sure our community is represented correctly. And I honestly like to think that our community will elect someone who represents them and their values, not just because they have a Spanish last name.”
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