Government

Recently embarked presidential candidate Joe Sestak waging campaign to secure Iowa 'beachhead'

Retired admiral says slow and steady wins presidential race

Retired admiral and former U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak speaks Aug. 10 at the 1st District Democrats Passport to Victory rally at the Linn County Fairgrounds in Central City. Sestak announced in June he was running to win Iowa’s Democratic presidential caucus. (David Harmantas/Freelance)
Retired admiral and former U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak speaks Aug. 10 at the 1st District Democrats Passport to Victory rally at the Linn County Fairgrounds in Central City. Sestak announced in June he was running to win Iowa’s Democratic presidential caucus. (David Harmantas/Freelance)

By James Q. Lynch, Gazette Des Moines Bureau

Retired three-star admiral Joe Sestak has sailed into the high waters of the 2020 Iowa caucus campaign and found the natives friendly.

“I’ve seen a nice response” during the more than 40 days spent in Iowa since announcing his candidacy in late June, the former Pennsylvania congressman said. “So we have been slowly, I think, getting name recognition.”

That’s important, he said, because “we consider Iowa a beachhead I have to secure much like Normandy before you’re ready to march all the way to Berlin.”

As Sestak, who served in the Navy for 31 years, marches through a lengthy conversation with reporters he throws in plenty of military terms as well as references to sources as diverse as Napoleon, Winston Churchill and Kim Jong Un.

Except for Tom Steyer, the Naval Academy and Harvard-educated Sestak is the most recent entrant into the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. In answer to an obvious question considering one of his rivals has been campaigning in Iowa for nearly two years, Sestak insists he didn’t wait too long by announcing in June.

“Somebody will have to define what ‘late’ is” because Bill Clinton didn’t enter the 1992 race until October 1991, said Sestak, 67.

He’s content to be the tortoise in this race to all the hares who jumped in early and are hopping all over Iowa to build support for the Feb. 3 first-in-the-nation caucuses.

Slow, steady and methodical are Sestak’s watchwords.

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“I go to each county about three times before we move on to others,” he explained. Speaking earlier this month to a few hundred Democrats at the Cedar Corridor Passport to Victory in Central City on his third visit to Linn County, Sestak was pleased with the number who said they had seen him before.

While he was speaking, Sestak’s staff was busy slipping flyers under the windshield wipers of cars in the parking lot. His campaign distributed 80,000 that day.

When you’re running a campaign on a shoestring, “You gotta do what you gotta do,” Sestak said, adding he can get 6,000 flyers for $2,100.

He’s also relying on multicandidate events like the Iowa State Fair, the Passport to Victory and others “because I don’t have the cachet to build my own events.”

Appearing with other candidates helps legitimize his campaign “particularly if you can get a few people to say, ‘Well, he wasn’t that bad.’

“It’s sort of like, unfortunately, Kim Jong Un has been legitimized somewhat by our engagement with him,” Sestak said. “And that might make it a little more difficult if we have to do more sanctions because the rest of the world has kind of seen a legitimacy to him. You get the point.”

The campaign can’t rely only on personal appearances and windshield flyers, Sestak said. It’s unlikely he’ll be included in the Democratic National Committee debate next month, but perhaps in October. To qualify, he’ll have to have 130,000 donors and be polling at least 2 percent in four polls.

At this point, he’s not close on either front.

“If I’m there by the fall, I’m OK, because there’s six or seven to go. And I don’t think the last Democratic debate was actually a defining moment,” Sestak said.

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He’s not complaining about the rules tightening who can appear on stage because “you don’t land on the beach and complain about it.”

He compared the rules to tax reform — anyone can game the system by spending $190,000 to raise 130,000 donors at $1 each.

“It does show ingenuity and perseverance. And that’s good,” he said. “But is that really a sign of support?”

If he doesn’t get on the debate stage, Sestak has a Plan B he refers to without offering details. It does involve an analysis of Iowa voters by a Penn State mathematician, Sestak said referring to a quote by Napoleon that “I have always had a taste for analysis and if I fell seriously in love I should dissect my passion bit by bit.”

“So we’ve looked at your counties here to see where the independents and Republicans are, for example, and that begins to tell you something without going into detail,” he said.

He’s interested in winning the support of more than Democrats “because I want be able to govern when I’m president ... not just live in the White House.”

Sestak believes he’s doing his best to get there, but concedes it’s a long shot.

“But like Winston Churchill said, though, ‘Sometimes it is not enough to do our best; we must do what is required,’” Sestak concluded.

l Comments: (319) 398-8375; james.lynch@thegazette.com

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