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ERIN MURPHY: Andy McKean’s switch isn’t necessarily an electoral death knell

April 27, 2019 GMT

Eastern Iowa’s 58th House District appears to be popular with politically flexible candidates.

Iowa Rep. Andy McKean created a statehouse stir this week when he announced his decision to change his political party affiliation from Republican to Democrat.

McKean has served two stints in the Iowa House for a total of nearly 20 years. He represents the House’s 58th District, which includes all of Jackson County, much of Jones County and a small piece of southwestern Dubuque County.

The district is no stranger to the political pendulum swinging for its statehouse representatives.

Before McKean returned to the statehouse in 2017, the district was represented for six years by Brian Moore, a former Democrat who became a Republican.

Moore in 2010 ran unsuccessfully in a Democratic primary for an Iowa Senate seat, then switched parties and ran that fall for the Iowa House seat — and won — as a Republican.

From that twist in 2010 to McKean’s announcement this week, it would seem for Iowa Republicans that the 58th District giveth and the 58th District taketh away.

It’s quite the coincidence that the same district, one of 100 in the Iowa House, would be represented by consecutive political shape-shifters.

Or maybe it’s not. The 58th District is certainly not the most politically divided: 31 percent Democrats, 25 percent Republicans and 44 percent no-party voters as of the most recent state data.

And it’s in the heart of Obama-Trump country. The district swung 33 points between 2012, when Democrat Barack Obama won it, and 2016, when President Trump was the victor. Only one Iowa House District — the 51st, in north Iowa — swung more.

Maybe in the 58th District the candidate is more important than the letter after his or her name.

McKean hopes so, since he plans to run for re-election in 2020, this time with a different letter.

“I hope the people back home will know that I’m still the same Andy McKean I always was. I’ve just changed my party affiliation. But I’ll still be working for the very same goals and priorities that I’ve had over many years in public service,” McKean said. “I fully expect that there will be some ramifications. I know there will be people who will be disappointed. There will probably be people who will be pleased, too.”

The reaction to McKean’s announcement was indeed as mixed as it was widespread. National media outlets picked up on the news of a statehouse Republican disavowing his party, in large part due to his disagreements with President Trump’s policies and behavior.

Among Iowa Republicans, some at the statehouse wished McKean well and outwardly, at least, showed no frustration with his decision. His move is especially stressful for Iowa House Republicans, who saw their majority — which was pared in the 2018 election from nine to four — trimmed by one more.

Outside the Golden Dome, some Iowa Republicans were less forgiving. State party chairman Jeff Kaufmann’s statement lambasted McKean and his criticism of Trump. And there was some Iowa GOP social media chatter that McKean had sealed his electoral fate by switching parties in a district that Trump carried.

Predicting McKean’s defeat in 2020 may be premature. That is not to say he is guaranteed a victory, only that it seems short-sighted to suggest McKean will lose just because he switched parties in a district that Trump carried.

McKean has significant name recognition, a critical component in elections and especially in local races. He has been on the ballot regularly, and voters have elected him repeatedly.

In a local election, McKean’s party affiliation may not matter as much as candidates further up the ballot. And McKean is well-known in his district. In addition to serving as a statehouse representative for roughly two decades, he also was a Jones County supervisor.

Independent of McKean and his district, political scientists will tell you voters view statehouse elections far differently than presidential elections. It is not at all uncommon for voters to split their tickets and vote for a local candidate regardless of which party they support atop the ballot.

What is safe to assume is the 58th District race will be interesting in 2020. Republicans surely will work to field a strong candidate who can help them win back a seat that, with McKean’s change, they have lost for the next 20 months.

Erin Murphy covers Iowa politics and government for Lee Enterprises. His email address is erin.murphy@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter at @ErinDMurphy.