As the 10 leading Democrats running for president debate in Houston Thursday, Joe Sestak will be on the red-eye back to Iowa. He wants to get to the Des Moines Econo Lodge, where he’s spent the majority of his summer, in time to catch a few hours of sleep and start a full day of campaigning.
“I’ll listen to it later,” Sestak said with a smirk and a bit of an eye roll, as if the whole debate thing is so mainstream.
Sestak, 67, a retired Navy admiral and former congressman from Delaware County, is “the other Joe” with Pennsylvania ties running for president. It’s easy to forget. Sestak has missed the last two debates. He polls around 1% (a fact he recently celebrated in an email to supporters). And he’s struggled to get press attention.
But he’s also quick to argue he has some of the best foreign affairs know-how in the field. And he’s a moderate who has not been afraid to buck his party, something that could appeal to disenchanted Republicans.
Last week, he returned to Pennsylvania for the first time since announcing in June. He held a fund-raiser — the campaign’s first — at Margaret Kuo’s in Wayne, where supporters munching on scallion pancakes and spring rolls were assured that, however unlikely it may seem, he has a path forward.
“I landed on the beach, I can’t go back to the landing craft,” Sestak, an avid user of naval metaphors, said. “And, look, my odds are twice better than when I started. We are moving forward.”
Friday was the first night in about three months that Sestak spent in Pennsylvania. He rolled two large suitcases through 30th Street Station to sit for an interview.
At one point this summer, Sestak spent 62 days traveling Iowa.
He estimates he’s distributed 120,000 brochures and shaken 28,000 hands (yes, one of his staffers is assigned to do rough counts). He’ll drive four hours to attend a Rotary meeting or a chamber of commerce event, sometimes attended by only a smattering of people.
“Every time I turned around, he was at the same event,” said Bret Niles, Linn County Democratic chair. “He shows up everywhere, and I think people at this point recognize who he is. I’m not sure how much energy he’s drawing.”
The grassroots approach has gotten some traction — the Iowa Starting Line called the campaign “peculiar and surprisingly effective.” The National Review said Sestak is “The Most Interesting Democrat You Forgot Was Running.” Both publications laud Sestak’s campaigns-of-old feel, not to mention the hustle — three or four events a day. Being on the move is kind of Sestak’s calling card. This is the same man who walked across Pennsylvania during his 2016 Senate run. He’s just swapped the flight jacket and sneakers for dress shirts and loafers.
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He lost the Senate bid to party-backed Katie McGinty, who then lost to Sen. Pat Toomey. Sestak also ran for Senate in 2010, bucking the party by challenging the anointed Sen. Arlen Specter, who had jumped from the GOP to the Democrats at the urging of former Vice President Joe Biden. He won the nomination, but lost to Toomey. Sestak represented parts of Delaware County in a heavily Republican district from 2006 to 2010. He was also a national security adviser to President Bill Clinton.
Now, he’s largely based at the Econo Lodge, where he and six paid staffers get the group rate — plus a discount (about $39 a night) because it’s undergoing construction. It’s made for good campaign networking. The motel manager, who is Indian, arranged for him to speak at a Hindu temple. Construction workers and homeless veterans often help him hand out fliers.
“He’s got a guerrilla campaign,” said Sean Bagniewski, chair of the Polk County Democratic Party. “It’s kind of the traditional, good old-fashioned way to win the caucuses.”
His goal is to hit as many counties as he can — including often overlooked rural areas — as many times as possible. He estimates he’s been in 50. “Amateurs do tactics, experts do logistics,” Sestak often says.
He groans at mention of the upcoming Polk County Steak Fry, a fall gathering of thousands of Democrats.
“These big events are so staged,” Sestak said. “The other candidates in this race are celebrities. They come in and they get their same 400 to 500 people.”
Sestak refuses to acknowledge he’s a long shot.
“One percent ties me for 9th,” he says. “I’m ahead of (John) Delaney and he’s been running for two years.”
He blames his slow start on late entry into the race. He planned to declare sooner, but his daughter’s brain cancer came back. Luckily, three MRIs and three months later, she was cleared — “in a safe harbor,” as he puts it. Alex, now 18, is living in Alexandria, Va., with her mom, Sestak’s wife Susan, as she continues to get treatment.
Moving forward, he’s planning to spend more time in other early primary states where he says voters are still deciding. The day after his stop in Pennsylvania, he flew to New Hampshire, where nearly 20 candidates were speaking at the state’s Democratic convention.
He was one of the last on the schedule and most of the arena had emptied by the time he arrived. He largely echoed the stump speech of his 2016 Senate primary campaign. Only a handful of reporters showed up to his media availability, and few knew anything about him.
“I need to pop from 1 to 3%,” Sestak told The Inquirer. “Then you get into a more credible space. That’s where (Andrew) Yang is.”
Sestak has struggled to get on TV. He says he was leaked an internal email from a major cable network directing producers not to put him on air because of his long shot status. He grants most interviews. He’s been on Sean Hannity several times, did an interview with Breitbart Radio, and went on the liberal podcast, Chapo Trap House.
He said he had the fund-raiser last week to help pay for social media ads to appear in Iowa.
The fund-raiser drew 120 supporters. There was no suggested donation and the campaign would not say how much was raised.
It was a brief respite from the trail with a roomful of fans who listened happily to Sestak for over an hour and then peppered him with questions. His supporters lauded his accomplishments in the Navy, his leadership, and attention to constituent services while in Congress.
“He’s a smart guy, he’s a good guy. He’s the real deal,” said Connie McGuinness, 67, who has known Sestak since before they were classmates at Cardinal O’Hara High School in Springfield. “I hope they don’t forget about him.”