Inside the DCCC’s stealth effort to help Conor Lamb

Publicly, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee did little to help Conor Lamb.

Behind the scenes was a different story.

The Democratic nominee in Pennsylvania’s special House election — whom polls suggest is poised to pull off a shock upset in Tuesday’s race over Republican Rick Saccone — benefited from a quiet but determined DCCC effort to boost his candidacy, according to local party officials and a source with knowledge of the spending strategy.

The group’s multi-pronged effort totaled more than $1 million and included significant investments in field staff, NFL-themed digital ads, and a last-minute get-out-the-vote effort to pull Lamb across the finish line. It also included a nearly $450,000 infusion into the Pennsylvania Democratic Party, money used to fund voter outreach.

The assistance belied what the group has said publicly about the race, when officials claimed that Lamb had raised more than enough money, and reflects the tricky balance national Democrats face when their candidates run in deep-red territory. Any overt involvement could ruin the local candidate’s appeal among conservative-leaning independent voters, but stay away entirely and the party might miss a chance at victory — and risk the wrath of a liberal base that asks why more wasn’t done to help.

“This race has always been first and foremost about the people of Western Pennsylvania,” said Abby Murphy, Lamb’s campaign manager, in a statement. “The DCCC’s strategic investments allowed Conor to focus on Western Pennsylvania issues and voters, and we appreciate their work.”

The DCCC’s most overt help came last month, when it spent nearly $260,000 on TV ads. But the group also invested $170,000 on get-out-the-vote digital ads and $160,000 for field staff and polling, according to a source. The spending on field staff dates back to December, that source said.

The digital ads came with a local twist, featuring the image of a football player dressed in the black-and-gold colors of Pittsburgh’s NFL team, the Steelers, urging voters to “make the right call” and “overturn Congress.” (The Steelers were infamously penalized by a controversial referee decision during last year’s NFL season.)

One ad also featured an image of an Etch-a-Sketch, urging votes to “shake things up.”

The DCCC also transferred $426,000 to the Pennsylvania Democratic Party, money officials there said was used to fund voter-outreach efforts.

“With that money, we decided to do a paid canvass program using actual boots on the ground, face-to-face with voters,” said Brandon Cwalina, spokesman for the state Democratic Party.

The DCCC declined to comment.

Even with the stealth investment in the race, the DCCC’s involvement pales in comparison to the combined spending of the National Republican Congressional Committee and Congressional Leadership Fund, which have both put millions of dollars into TV ads. The GOP groups have been forced to spend heavily to compensate for Saccone’s own lackluster fundraising: the GOP nominee has been outraised by Lamb this year by a nearly five-to-one ratio.

The outside spending, mostly in the form of negative ads, might have created some fallout for Saccone’s campaign: A source with knowledge of the Democrats’ internal polling found that 50 percent of voters thought the GOP nominee was running a negative campaign, while only 19 percent thought the same of Lamb’s campaign.

Alex Roarty: 202-383-6173, @Alex_Roarty