The Maine League of Conservation Voters announced Friday that it is backing Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud for governor, an endorsement that will further build the candidate’s volunteer and financial support.

While not a surprise, the endorsement marks the installation of another cog in the political apparatus that aims to help the six-term congressman defeat Republican Gov. Paul LePage in November. The backing also helps Michaud build his grassroots and spending advantage over independent Eliot Cutler, who is battling the Democrat for voters and donors on the left.

Caroline Pryor, the league’s board chairwoman, said in a statement: “Maine Conservation Voters wants to help elect the candidate who will be the most effective governor for Maine’s environment. And this year, it is equally important to support the candidate who is best positioned to defeat the current governor. Governor LePage came in with a wrecking ball and has made repeated attacks on Maine’s water, land, and wildlife. His policies have been short-sighted and out-of-step with Maine people and Maine values.”

LePage, whose environmental policies have been widely criticized by conservation and environmental groups, did not respond to an invitation to participate in the endorsement review process. In 2012, the league gave the LePage administration a “D” in its report card on elected officials.

The LePage campaign issued a statement Friday saying the endorsement was not about the environment, “it is about politics in backing thirty-year politician Michael Michaud.” The campaign noted that LePage issued the second-largest environmental penalty in Maine’s history, a reference to a $900,000 fine against Chevron Corp. in 2011 for leaks decades ago from a tank farm on the Penobscot River in Hampden.

The League of Conservation Voters has become a significant spender in elections in Maine and at the national level. The Maine chapter and its national affiliate have spent more than $220,000 to support mostly Democratic candidates in legislative and gubernatorial elections here. In 2012, the state chapter also targeted Republican legislative candidates in potential swing district races during a legislative election that returned control of the Legislature to Democrats while shattering a record of spending by outside groups.

The national League of Conservation Voters also helped independent U.S. Sen. Angus King in the 2012 election by spending nearly $100,000 in ads against his Republican opponent, Charlie Summers.

The League of Conservation Voters has also been named by campaign finance watchdogs as one of the more prolific spenders by so-called dark money groups, which have increased their activity since the U.S. Supreme Court, in the Citizens United case, ruled that spending caps on corporations and unions were unconstitutional. Since that decision nonprofit organizations, which can shield their donors, have increased their election spending to back Republican and Democratic candidates.

The League of Conservation Voters was recently cited by the Center for Responsive Politics as one of the more active liberal organizations that combined to spend $1 billion during the 2012 election.

That spending power, along with the League of Conservation Voters’ network of volunteers, should bode well for Michaud, who continues to gather a coalition of progressive groups that can also deploy grassroots activists to get sympathetic voters to the polls.

Despite competing for the same endorsements as Michaud, Cutler has been unable to win additional backing. Cutler’s campaign has said that the setbacks were expected because the special interest groups were embedded in the Democratic Party structure.

Crystal Canney, Cutler’s spokeswoman, said in a statement that the endorsement doesn’t change his record, which includes working on two federal environmental laws, the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act.

“This is just another special interest group backing the Democratic Party candidate just like they did in 2010,” Canney said. “It has little to do with his record on the environment or his qualifications for governor. Like the leaders of other interest groups that have endorsed Mike Michaud, the MCV refused to allow the candidates to discuss their records or debate the issues in front of their members before making this endorsement.”

Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at:

smistler@pressherald.com

Twitter: @stevemistler