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Briggs: Jim Lucas' behavior opened a door for Democrats to beat him

Indianapolis Star

Published: 6:03 a.m. ET March 3, 2024 Updated: 6:03 a.m. ET March 3, 2024

State Rep. Jim Lucas won nearly 74% of the vote when he ran for reelection to a safe Republican Indiana House seat in 2022. Now, he might be vulnerable.

Lucas' troubling pattern of behavior, including a history of posting racist memes to social media and a guilty plea for operating a vehicle while intoxicated and leaving a crash scene, has opened a door for Democrats.

Trish Whitcomb is planning to walk through it. The Seymour Democrat is the daughter of former Indiana Gov. Edgar D. Whitcomb. She's challenging Lucas in House District 69, which includes portions of Jackson, Bartholomew, Jennings, Scott and Washington counties.

"People who I know to be Republicans come up to me and say, 'I'm so glad you're running against him,'" Whitcomb told me. "They're embarrassed. They're just embarrassed. And they see me as a viable alternative. Part of that is because my family name is known in southern Indiana. They know I come from a legacy of public service."

Lucas also has a primary opponent, Brian Savilla. Assuming Lucas clears that hurdle, the far-right Republican could be in for his most competitive general election since he first won his House seat with 58% of the vote in 2012.

Whitcomb is a learning adviser for an education software company and former executive director of the Indiana Retired Teachers Association.

She managed Glenda Ritz's winning campaign for state superintendent of public instruction in 2012 and then served as a special adviser to Ritz. Whitcomb has spent a lot of time on campaigns, accompanying her Republican father on the trail and later helping to elect Democrat Birch Bayh.

She's trying to appeal to bipartisan sensibilities that have gone out of style and hoping Republicans will give her a chance. Whitcomb views it as a math problem. Her campaign has identified 16,000 Republican-leaning voters who might be willing to hear her out and she wants to persuade at least one-third of them to give her a chance.

"I'm going to have more money than any candidate ever before (in District 69)," she said. "I already have more money than anybody ever had before.

"I've got a statewide perspective. I was a municipal adviser. I know about state finance. I worked at the state Department of Education. That's where most of our tax dollars are spent, and I know education policy like the back of my hand. Those are very important things that will make me a different kind of candidate."

Yet, Whitcomb knows, her resume and her family name likely wouldn't be enough to put a Democrat over the top if Lucas weren't making news for all the wrong reasons. Most recently, Lucas received national attention for showing his gun to students who went to the Statehouse to advocate for gun control policies. Lucas later said he shouldn't have done that.

"He has created a gigantic opening for me," Whitcomb said.

Trish Whitcomb is challenging state Rep. Jim Lucas in November.

I noted to Whitcomb that former President Donald Trump is likely to be on the ballot in November. He's boosted Indiana Republicans in past elections and could make her job even harder. But, even there, Whitcomb found signs of hope, noting Lucas has not received as many votes as Trump when they've appeared on the same ballot before.

"Lucas generally ran well behind Donald Trump," she said. "That means somebody walked into a voting booth and they voted for Donald Trump and they did not vote for Jim Lucas. There's a gap. And I'm going to make that gap even bigger."

Lucas for years has ignited controversies while making Indiana a punchline. He's reaped few consequences for his behavior. Whitcomb is asking a Republican-leaning district to look beyond partisanship and say enough is enough.

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

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