An interesting thing happened last week in the 2nd Congressional District Democratic primary race between state Sens. Emily Cain and Troy Jackson. The League of Conservation Voters, which endorsed Cain in March, took the unusual step of placing Jackson on its “Dirty Dozen” list and announcing an independent expenditure to defeat him.

In a news release, the league said it has “kicked off a major mail campaign highlighting (Jackson’s) anti-environmental voting record in the state House and Senate. The $150,000 mail program includes five flights of mail that will reach over 28,500 voters.”

The release continued, “Troy Jackson failed to protect Maine’s public health, sided with polluters, and refused to take on big challenges like climate change.”

Strong words, especially given Jackson’s respectable League rating of 64 percent lifetime and 71 percent in the last legislative session. With few exceptions, most candidates achieving Dirty Dozen status earn ratings in the single digits.

So what’s going on here?

The shortest and most likely answer is that Cain enjoys a 90 percent lifetime League voting record and is widely seen as more responsive to issues and legislation important to the environmental community. So why wouldn’t the group aggressively get behind the “greenest’” horse in the race?

What’s more, the group notes in its release that it targets “races in which (the League) has a serious chance to affect the outcome.” And there’s no doubt that $150,000 in Maine’s 2nd District can affect the outcome, especially in an off-year primary with Democratic base voters motivated by environmental issues.

Jackson, however, preferred to posit a more nefarious rationale, citing a $25,000 contribution to the League from hedge fund billionaire and Cain supporter, S. Donald Sussman. (Sussman is also the husband of 1st District U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree and the majority owner of MaineToday Media, publisher of this paper, the Portland Press Herald, Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel.) That donation arrived just 13 days before the league’s endorsement of Cain.

In other words, Jackson is alleging a serious and potentially illegal political quid pro quo: the $25,000 donation in exchange for the Dirty Dozen listing and a mail campaign on Cain’s behalf. It’s a politically titillating conspiracy theory, but Jackson has offered zero evidence to support it. Regardless, in a news release, Jackson said, “I don’t have a hedge fund billionaire and his friends paying for my seat in Congress. People like that won’t support people like me because they know they can’t buy me off.”

Those sentences warrant some serious unpacking.

n First, the suggestion that Cain can be bought and sold by wealthy donors or special interests is farcical. There is nothing in Cain’s personal or legislative record that gives Jackson’s allegation a hint of merit.

n Second, assuming Cain emerges as the Democratic nominee, Jackson has armed her Republican opposition by calling Cain’s personal integrity into question. There’s nothing wrong with Democrats engaging in a spirited and vigorous discussion of the issues, but Jackson’s allegation is a personal attack that’s as politically shortsighted as it is baseless. (To her credit, Cain’s campaign has not promoted Jackson’s Dirty Dozen listing).

n Third, Jackson’s attack on Sussman ignores that the candidate is a prior beneficiary of Sussman’s political largesse. Sussman is a major funder of the Maine Democratic Party and progressive organizations that struggle mightily to elect and retain House and Senate Democrats, Jackson included.

Jackson never previously took issue with Sussman’s political patronage, yet now indignantly chafes against it when he imagines he’s on the opposite end. Should Jackson fail in his congressional bid and run again for the state Senate, it will be interesting to see if Sussman’s dollars remain problematic.

Of course, Jackson’s allegations have also kept his Dirty Dozen listing in the news for days, accruing to Cain’s benefit. It’s the same media relations endorsement myopia that besets Eliot Cutler’s campaign. The better course is to take your lumps and move on, rather than repeatedly flag that a respected third-party group is supporting your opponent.

Finally, the Dirty Dozen listing creates an impression that this race is closer than it appears, with Jackson in striking distance of Cain. Perhaps that’s so. But the notion could well boost Cain, motivating volunteers, as well as previously lackadaisical local and national donors, to more deeply engage in the face of an unexpectedly tight contest.

Jackson was on reasonably solid ground to question his placement on the League’s Dirty Dozen list, given his vote history and the list’s prior occupants. He could’ve vigorously objected on those grounds and moved on. But by asserting a conspiracy, questioning his opponent’s integrity and attacking the Democrats’ largest political patron, Jackson made an unnecessary and politically amateurish misstep.

Michael Cuzzi is a former campaign aide to President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry and former U.S. Rep. Tom Allen. He manages the Portland office for VOX Global, a strategic communications and public affairs firm headquartered in Washington, D.C. He can be contacted at:

mjcuzzi@gmail.com

Twitter: @CuzziMJ