Democrat Joe Sestak has spent more time in Iowa, 64 days and counting, than any of what he calls his “celebrity” rivals for president.
Since announcing his candidacy June 22, the retired three-star vice admiral has been living in a motel in Des Moines. He aims to visit each of the state’s 99 counties at least twice to “secure a beachhead” for his long-shot bid.
Mr. Sestak has only a handful of campaign staff, and he is advertising for help. His room at an Econo Lodge is stacked with tens of thousands of campaign brochures.
“They’re the cheapest form of advertisement,” Mr. Sestak said. “I literally just tell voters, ‘That’s me. I’m a retired Navy admiral in the race late. Take it home and read about me.’”
He posted a video of himself talking to a Spanish-speaking hotel maid and her son with their cleaning cart in the hallway of the motel. “We’re here not just because of the great price but because of the great people,” Mr. Sestak said.
The former two-term House lawmaker from Pennsylvania is campaigning on accountability, promoting himself as the candidate who is “above self, above party, above any special interest.” The Des Moines Register’s editorial board said last month that Mr. Sestak “has earned the trust of Americans” through his 31 years of military service.
His priorities include restoring several major Obama-era international pacts, specifically the Paris climate accord, the Iran nuclear agreement and the free trade Trans-Pacific Partnership. He said the president should be “convening the world against the challenges.”
“We’re stronger when we convene the world to protect our American dream,” he said. “We protect it with allies and friends.”
Mr. Sestak decided to enter the race after his daughter Alex received a clean bill of health in her battle with brain cancer. He missed the first two Democratic debates and has virtually no chance of getting enough donors or polling support to make the third debate on Sept. 12. A Monmouth University poll this month put his support at 0%.
But he has a plan. He is trying to make an impact in Iowa the old-fashioned way: by camping out in the state, giving interviews to anyone who asks and shaking as many hands as possible at parades, festivals and breakfast meetings.
“We go to every kind of event you can have — rotary clubs, chambers of commerce, an event with 15 people,” Mr. Sestak said in an interview. “That doesn’t mean it’s a winning strategy yet, all right? But because there’s so much celebrity in a number of these [rivals], they tend to understandably come in, have a big event, press coverage, a lot of people. But are they the new one or not? Eighty percent of people haven’t made up their mind.”
Facing opponents with much bigger name recognition who can vastly outspend him, however, Mr. Sestak also has a backup plan. It involves persuading independents and disaffected Republicans to register as Democrats.
“You can change caucuses, parties,” he said. “I have to have a plan B to be credible at least within Iowa.”
He acknowledges it would be “an enormous undertaking” requiring caucus-goers to fill out new voter registration forms before the first-in-the-nation contest Feb. 2.
“We are presently focused on the Democratic primary, but we also go to [events] that are nonpartisan. We do that purposely because, at the end of the day, there is always the option to try to have others be interested,” he said.
For now, the 67-year-old Mr. Sestak is trying to outhustle his 20 Democratic opponents. He presents himself as a pragmatic Democrat with an independent streak, with good reason.
In 2006, Mr. Sestak defeated Republican Rep. Curt Weldon of Pennsylvania in a suburban district near Philadelphia where Republicans heavily outnumbered Democrats. He won reelection easily in 2008.
After Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania switched parties in 2009 to give Senate Democrats a 60-vote majority to approve President Obama’s agenda, Mr. Sestak decided to run against Mr. Specter in the 2010 Democratic primary. He faced opposition from Mr. Obama, Vice President Joseph R. Biden, Democratic Gov. Edward G. Rendell and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which ran ads against him.
“My party was wrong to endorse Arlen Specter. Today, nobody would do it in the ‘#MeToo generation,’” said Mr. Sestak, referring to Mr. Specter’s aggressive cross-examination of Anita Hill in the 1991 confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. “I stood up and bore the consequences.”
Mr. Sestak defeated Mr. Specter, a five-term incumbent, by 8 percentage points, but he lost the general election to Republican Patrick J. Toomey and the 2016 Democratic Senate primary, with much of the party’s establishment opposing him.
He has criticized Democrats who voted for “that tragic misadventure in Iraq” and says the Green New Deal is noble but unrealistic without the rest of the world’s cooperation in reducing greenhouse gases.
Much of Mr. Sestak’s agenda is liberal. He supports a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants, has voted for Obamacare and favors a ban on assault weapons and universal background checks on firearms purchases.
He supports moving to a government-funded health care system, one modeled on the Veterans Health Administration or a public option based on Medicare.
Mr. Sestak, who served as a defense policy director for President Clinton, says Mr. Trump’s massive military buildup is misdirected and should be devoted more to cybersecurity.
“We’re buying a more expensive military and a less effective military, but it’s at least since 2005, so I don’t want to put this all on the Trump administration,” he said. “Cyberspace is the new domain of warfare. Nobody wants a strong military more than I do, but we’re doing it less efficiently.”