vision 2020

Just What the Democratic Primary Needed: A 25th Candidate

“Admiral Joe” Sestak. Photo: Matt Rourke/AP/Shutterstock

Just when you thought the endless procession of 2020 Democratic candidates had come to a merciful end, someone else saw the next president of the United States in the mirror and went to Iowa to announce: former Pennsylvania congressman and two-time Senate loser Joe Sestak.

Sestak did have a good explanation for his delay in entering the most crowded primary field in U.S. political history: His daughter was fighting brain cancer and apparently has won the battle for the second time in her young life.

Whether Sestak has a snowball’s chance in hell of becoming a viable candidate is a separate question. He does have an impressive national-security résumé. He’s an Annapolis grad and a career Navy officer who rose to the rank of vice-admiral (a three-star admiral, more colloquially); he was on Bill Clinton’s National Security Council staff before obtaining a high-level Pentagon gig during the Bush administration. Reportedly, he came into conflict with Donald Rumsfeld for contradicting the party line on the Navy budget and then retired (also his daughter was beginning her fight against cancer at the time).

Sestak’s first political race, in 2006, was paradigmatic of that cycle: A Democratic Party hungry for candidates with military-service records embraced him in a challenge to incumbent Republican House member Curt Weldon in a traditionally GOP district in northeastern Pennsylvania. Buoyed by a strong Democratic tide, successful fund-raising, and a corruption scandal affecting his opponent, Sestak won easily and was reelected handily in 2008. As in later contests (including the current one), he depicted himself as eager to “pay back” his country and its citizens for the military and veterans’ health services that saved his daughter’s life.

In 2010, Sestak engaged in the political battle that would stamp him eternally as a “maverick”: challenging the strongly party-backed incumbent Arlen Specter, a former Republican who had switched parties the year before. Sestak won the primary but proceeded to lose the general election, narrowly, to Pat Toomey in an extremely good Republican year. This outcome generated some intraparty resentment against Sestak because Toomey had lost a Republican primary to Specter six years earlier.

A university professor between his campaigns, Sestak tried for a comeback in 2016 and led in early primary polling despite considerable escalating hostility from Establishment figures in the party. He eventually lost to former federal and state environmental official Katy McGinty, who in turn lost in Toomey’s second-straight narrow victory.

According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, Sestak’s latest run represents peak eccentricity:

In keeping with his unusual methods, Sestak’s announcement surprised even some longtime supporters and former campaign aides, who were blindsided by his decision to reenter politics on the biggest possible stage.

It’s clear that Sestak (who often refers to himself as “Admiral Joe”) will again run on his military record, rivaling Seth Moulton (who served multiple tours as a Marine officer in Afghanistan and Iraq) and Pete Buttigieg (a naval intelligence officer in Afghanistan) as candidates stressing their status as veterans. The formal announcement of Sestak’s candidacy took place at a veterans’ museum in Waterloo, Iowa.

Since he’s entering the contest too late to qualify for the first and probably the second candidate debates, it’s unclear what if any path to victory Sestak sees for himself. In theory, he could appeal to the same Rust Belt white working-class voters Joe Biden is supposedly luring away from Donald Trump; Sestak’s political base isn’t that far from Biden’s hometown of Scranton. But he’s not in a position to self-finance his campaign and, for sure, isn’t going to get any Democratic Establishment backing; his reputation as a centrist won’t help him with the few progressive activists who haven’t already signed on with someone else.

At the moment, the biggest question about Admiral Joe is whether he will be taken seriously as a candidate. He’s either the 24th or 25th “major” candidate to announce, depending on whether you count Mike Gravel’s teenager-run campaign as meriting that designation. Sestak is 67, so it’s unlikely he’s doing this as the beginning of a comeback in Pennsylvania politics, though you never know in this era of rampaging political septuagenarians. Perhaps he looked at the vast field or the bizarre incumbent and said, like so many others, “Why not me?” He’ll probably get his answer soon enough. And maybe soon the number of active Democratic candidates for president will finally start going down rather than up.

Just What the Democratic Primary Needed: A 25th Candidate