When a High-Profile Endorsement Is Low-Profile

President Obama taped a message endorsing Scott Murphy, above. Murphy faces James Tedisco, below, for a New York congressional seat.
President Obama taped a message endorsing Scott Murphy, above. Murphy faces James Tedisco, below, for a New York congressional seat. (Mike Groll - AP)
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Monday, March 30, 2009

The Democratic National Committee released an advertisement featuring President Obama's image and touting his endorsement of Scott Murphy in tomorrow's special election for a House seat in Upstate New York.

The spot attracted some attention as the first time that President Obama has weighed in with a televised endorsement of a candidate.

What the ad won't draw much of, however, is viewers.

The DNC spent a meager $10,000 on the ad, according to reports filed with the Federal Election Commission -- a pittance in the world of political television. So very few actual voters in the Albany media market will ever see the Obama ad.

Why spend any money, then? Because the DNC and the White House want to ensure that they won't get blamed if Murphy comes up short. Producing an ad, any ad, gives them political cover.

Republicans have devoted far more resources to the competitive race for New York's 20th Congressional District, where Murphy, a political novice, is running against Assemblyman James Tedisco (R), a veteran of the state legislature. The GOP and its conservative allies have financed more than $1.6 million in ads, phone calls and other get-out-the-vote efforts, while Democrats and their liberal allies have spent just $953,000.

The seat came open after Obama selected Hillary Rodham Clinton as secretary of state and Kirsten Gillibrand was plucked from her House seat by Gov. David A. Paterson to succeed Clinton in the Senate. The district is conservative-leaning terrain, as far as New York goes, a place where George W. Bush won 54 percent of the vote in 2004 but that President Obama carried with 51 percent last November.

Outspending the opposition is an unusual position for Republicans, who have been financially outgunned by Democrats in almost every key race since they lost the majority in the House in 2006.

The Democratic hesitancy to go all-in for this seat contrasts sharply with special elections last May in far more conservative districts in Louisiana and Mississippi. In those races, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spent a combined $3 million, swamping the GOP committees and lifting underdog candidates to victory.

Part of the problem for Democrats is debt. The DCCC bet big last fall that it could win seats in regions Democrats never dreamed of representing, taking out large loans to finance an effort that led to a 21-seat victory. By the end of February, the DCCC was underwater financially, with more than $15 million in debt and less than $3 million in cash on hand.

The New York race is already being framed as something of a referendum on the first months of the Obama administration. By publicly hyping Obama's endorsement of Murphy and then putting virtually no resources into promoting it, national Democrats have gambled that news reports alone about the Obama-Murphy connection will energize voters. If Tedisco wins, it will be framed as a rejection of Obama, particularly now in light of the president's endorsement.

Turnout is expected to be low, so ultimately the most important thing Obama might have done in the race is to e-mail his own supporters urging them to help volunteer in the district. "To restore our economy and build a foundation for lasting prosperity, I'll need Scott's help. This week, Scott needs yours," Obama wrote.

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