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The continuity agent


Kate Brown has been governor for just about seven years, and those years have been an extension of essentially similar – in broad-strokes ideas and governing approach – Democratic control of the top office reaching back more than a third of a century.

Those facts underlie the candidacies for governor of Republicans and an independent, as candidates for change. They are a central fact in a different way, and maybe even more centrally, for Democrat Tina Kotak, the recently-departed speaker of the Oregon House and in some estimations the front runner for governor.

Other Democrats in the race, such as Yamhill farmer Nicholas Kristoff (pending Supreme Court action) and state Treasurer Tobias Read, presumably would take a generally similar ideological course in a broad sense. But they are not in quite the same sense what Kotek is: the continuity candidate.

You can reach that conclusion just on the basis of resume. After this current term is done, Oregon will have a new (or nearly new) governor, Senate president and House speaker, a turnover unlike anything in a generation. Kotek has been speaker almost a decade, and retiring Senate President Peter Courtney has held that job twice as long. If Kotek is elected governor, she will be the primary long-timer in those ranks.

Kotek’s own statements attest to that. The lead statement on the front page of her campaign website says, “she’s running for Governor to continue building a future of opportunity and justice for every Oregonian.” Pay attention to the word “continue,” because she (reasonably) then goes on to cite achievements during her tenure as speaker.

Along similar lines, she said in an interview as she left the speakership: “we have to complete our promises. That is what the next governor has to do.”

Given her role in Oregon government, Kotek could hardly frame her candidacy in any other way, and her productive track record is something to run on, which she is. It is also a big part of what has allowed her to pick up strong organizational, party and financial support so far.

But sticking with achievements from the past can bring political challenges and perils.

Start with the regularly-cited, even after a period of months, Morning Consult polling report ranking Brown as the least-popular (in home state) of any governor, at 43 percent. At least one pollster in-state has said the number is consistent with other research. Whether that’s justified or not, the attitudes that reflects have ripple effects.

Brown did win election to the office twice, but she didn’t reach 51 percent of the vote either time. Since her last election, a gaggle of problems from Portland riots to Covid-19 have battered her, and they’re linked to her in many voters’ minds.

In Kotek’s case, it’s not just that her agenda lines up closely with Brown’s: The identification runs tighter than that. Both are Portland Democrats, both with leadership history in the legislature.

Their campaign support, financial and otherwise, overlaps heavily, notably from labor organizations but also well beyond. One of those key organizations is EMILY’S List, which contributed $800,000 to Brown in 2018. That alone will bond Kotek tightly to Brown.

Kotek is facing the strategic problem confronted by many vice presidents running for the top job, such as Al Gore and George H.W. Bush, even when seeking to follow presidents who were still popular: Linking to the positives but also trying to find ways to differentiate, to set a different course. Kotek has yet to do that.

She likely understands as much. Asked if she would seek Brown’s endorsement, Kotek sounded uncharacteristically cagey in her reply: “If she’s interested in making an endorsement, I would certainly talk to her about it.”

And not all of the similarities her opposition would point to are data points she’d want to play up. Kotek’s effectiveness has sometimes wrapped up in playing hardball, and her decision last year unilaterally to throw overboard an agreement with legislative Republicans on redistricting will surely come in for a few mentions again.

Now that she has full time to focus on her campaign, one of Kotek’s lead topics must be: How could my governorship be different in a positive way from what has come before?

Or she could stick with continuity. But she no doubt will be thinking about how often voters respond positively to candidates who position themselves for change.

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