Sestak served two terms in the House, from 2007 to 2011. A retired Navy admiral, he also pursued two unsuccessful bids for the Senate, each time drawing the ire of national Democrats, who chafed at Sestak’s go-it-alone style and quirky personality.
Sestak first drew national attention in 2010 when he waged a primary challenge against then-Sen. Arlen Specter, who had switched parties to run for reelection as a Democrat.
The Obama White House, in an effort to dissuade Sestak from running, dispatched former president Bill Clinton to offer Sestak an unpaid position on a presidential advisory board if he dropped out of the race. Sestak said no. He bested Specter in the primary and later lost to Republican Pat Toomey in the general election.
Sestak pursued another Senate bid against Toomey in 2016, during which he walked alone across the state of Pennsylvania. Sestak lost in the Democratic primary to former Pennsylvania Environmental Protection Secretary Katie McGinty, who had been endorsed by then-President Obama and was boosted by more than $4 million in spending by outside liberal groups.
In his announcement video Sunday, Sestak touted his anti-establishment credentials, citing his 2010 Senate race and, in particular, Specter’s 1991 cross-examination of Anita Hill on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“I disagreed that a Senator should be our party’s nominee who had humiliated Anita Hill, allowed to do so by members of our party as she testified about her sexual harassment by now-Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas,” Sestak said in the video.
Sestak also acknowledged that his entry into the White House race comes later than the other announced candidates. He said the reason for the delay was so that he could be with his daughter, Alexandra, after her brain cancer had returned.
“Throughout this past year, Alex again showed she is stronger than me, heroically beating the single digit odds once more, drawing on the fortitude of her mom,” Sestak said.
Sestak’s late entry comes with disadvantages: The first Democratic debates are this week, and Sestak will not be on the stage. According to the Democratic National Committee, deadlines for donations and polling are on midnight on July 16, and campaigns have until the morning of July 17 to provide certification.
Asked about qualifying for the debates, Chris Baker, a Sestak spokesman, said Sunday that the campaign is “going to follow all possible avenues to reach the American public.”
“What Joe believes is important is reaching the American people with a message that will resonate with them,” he said.
Baker added that Sestak planned to visit an African-American church in Iowa in the morning followed by an event later in the day at the Sullivan Brothers Iowa Veterans Museum in Waterloo.
Colby Itkowitz and Dave Weigel contributed to this report.