The newest entry seeking the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination knows he has a tough road ahead.
Joe Sestak, a retired Navy admiral and two-term Congressman from Pennsylvania, formally announced his candidacy last month. While most candidates threw their hats in the ring months earlier, Sestak had an important reason for waiting. His daughter recently beat brain cancer for the second time in her young life. He said only 8 percent of kids survive from glioblastoma.
The first time she survived, he decided to run against incumbent Curt Wheldon for a U.S. House seat in suburban Philadelphia. Sestak won two terms in Congress before turning his sights on the Senate. He lost in the general election to Pat Toomey by 80,000 votes in 2010 and a Democratic primary six years later.
“I wasn't planning on running a year ago when it happened but sitting there with her kind of changed my mind,” he told The Center Square. “I know I'm in late and I know it's a challenge, but I also know that we had the same thing against Curt Weldon … and against Arlen Specter [in the 2010 Democratic primary] against my party's opposition. This is a bigger one. So, we're going to have to work it hard, very hard.”
While there’s still more than six months before the Iowa caucus officially starts the primary election process, Sestak’s start came the weekend before the first series of Democratic primary debates took place.
In some years, that might not be that much of a disadvantage. However, there are two dozen opponents standing between him and the 1,885 pledged delegates needed to secure the nomination on the first ballot of next July’s Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee. In such a crowded field, it will be difficult to stand out and connect with voters.
But there are some who believe his background, which includes serving on President Bill Clinton’s National Security Council staff as the director of defense policy, make him a voice worth hearing. Sestak’s platform includes restoring American leadership worldwide and fighting climate change.
“Joe Sestak may be the longest of shots, but his voice, particularly on international issues, can be an important addition to the vote-seeking chorus that is now serenading the American electorate,” the York (Pa.) Dispatch editorial board wrote last week. “He’s right about one thing: The 2020 race will indeed be about not just electing a president but healing our nation’s soul.”
In terms of getting his voice heard, Sestak plans to lean on his military background – not just as a drawing card to voters but as a way of mapping out his campaign. Even though the next round of debates takes place at the end of this month, Sestak isn’t focused on those.
“I'm a big believer, having learned from the military, [that] amateurs do tactics, experts do logistics,” Sestak told The Center Square. “And so, my thing is, we're focused not on this immediate next debate, to where everything else goes by the wayside. We've landed on the beach at Normandy and now we've got to secure that beachhead and then we'll go all the way to Berlin. So, we are focused to make sure we get there. We'd like to get there by September.”
In order to qualify for the September debates, Sestak and the other candidates must meet two thresholds established by the Democratic National Committee. First, they will need at least 2 percent support in four polls, which can be either national or for Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina or Nevada. In addition, qualifying campaigns must have 130,000 unique donors with 400 donors in at least 20 states.
To get in to September's debates, Sestak and his team have spent time in Iowa meeting with voters since the campaign started. By the middle of this month, he said the plan is to spend a week in New Hampshire before returning to Iowa.
Fundraising efforts started on July 1, so Sestak plans to a roughly 50-50 split between retail politics and seeking campaign contributions.