Good morning from Augusta. Noise is increasing around the race in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District, with a big-name politician and dark money coming to the aid of the Democratic candidate as Republicans looking to defend U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin grope for attack lines.

The only Kennedy in Congress will appear at a southern Maine fundraiser for the race next week. Assistant House Majority Leader Jared Golden, the Democratic nominee facing Poliquin in November, will hold an Aug. 8 fundraiser with Rep. Joseph Kennedy III, D-Massachusetts, in the Cape Porpoise village of Kennebunkport, according to an invitation provided to the Bangor Daily News.

The involvement of the grand-nephew of the late President John F. Kennedy underscores the amount of national interest in the race, which the Cook Political Report and several other prognosticators have deemed one of the 26 races that could be most likely to determine which party controls Congress. Poliquin has a steep money advantage, however.

It’s common for candidates in races like this to raise lots of money at events outside the district — like Kennebunkport is. Poliquin, a Republican, and Emily Cain, the Democrat who lost to him in 2014 and 2016, held fundraisers less than a mile apart in New York City during the same week in their last campaign.

A network of dark-money progressive groups has dedicated $40,000 to fighting Poliquin. Politico reported this weekend that money from the Sixteen Thirty Fund, a shadowy nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., that has given millions to liberal causes, is showing up all over the country to affect U.S. House of Representatives races. They have spent at least $4.6 million on ads criticizing Republicans on health care and taxes.

The news outlet found that a sliver of that — $40,000 — was dedicated to Maine through a group called Mainers Against Health Care Cuts, which held a mock retirement party for Poliquin in February that was run by activists from progressive groups including the Maine People’s Alliance, Mainers for Accountable Leadership and Indivisible Bangor.

Republicans hit Golden for two votes in the Legislature that lots of their members made, too. A Facebook post from the Maine Republican Party this weekend ripped Golden for backing two bills in the Legislature that it said would “buy needles for drug users” with taxpayer money and “make plastic shopping bags illegal.” These claims deserve lots of unpacking.

That first bill directed the Maine Department of Health and Human Services to start needle exchange programs with the aim of reducing fatal opioid overdoses. But lots of Republicans backed the proposal, too — so many that a veto from Gov. Paul LePage was overridden.

And the other bill that Golden voted for indeed started as a proposal to ban plastic shopping bags in most cases in Maine by 2010. But it changed significantly by the time it went to the floor for votes and ended up as a weaker bid to establish a state policy looking to phase them out. All but six Senate Republicans backed it, but opposition from House Republicans doomed it to a LePage veto.

Dunlap to pick order of ballot questions

The secretary of state is set to pick the order of November questions on the ballot, but we already know what the first one will be. Question 1 will be the only citizen initiative on the November ballot — a universal home care program for Mainers 65 and older to be funded by a new 3.8 percent tax on income over around $128,000, capital gains and rental income that is expected to generate $310 million annually.

Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap will hold a drawing on Thursday to determine which bond items will appear on the ballot as questions 2, 3 and 4. The three bond issues to be decided by voters are a $106 million for transportation, $64 million for infrastructure upgrades at public universities and community colleges and $30 million for wastewater infrastructure.

Reading list

Maine dumped its mandate for proficiency-based diplomas. A bill to repeal the mandate was one of the few pieces of legislation that gained significant bipartisan support during this year’s fractious session. The bill essentially lets school districts set their own graduation standards. Some districts will continue using proficiency-based teaching methods that require students to show expertise in specific subject areas before they can advance, but other systems will, in the words of Bangor superintendent Betsy Webb, “re-evaluate the best way to ensure students have the necessary skills to be college-, career- and life-ready upon graduation.”

A precursor to Obamacare is on track to return in Maine. The federal government granted a LePage administration request to restart the Maine Guaranteed Access Reinsurance Association, which began as part of a 2011 state health care package backed by Republicans that was credited with lowering premiums but ran for just 18 months before being superseded in 2014 by a similar, transitional program in the federal Affordable Care Act that ran through 2016. The program aims to rein in health insurance costs by using a fund to cover insurance costs for high-risk patients who will be enrolled in the pool automatically if they have one of eight conditions — including types of cancer. Insurers will be allowed to voluntarily enroll other patients in the pool.

Maine nursing homes did not fare well in a national ranking. Maine Public reports that four nursing homes in the state received the lowest possible score for staffing levels, according to an analysis of federal data by Kaiser Health News. Other Maine nursing homes fared better in the rankings, which are based primarily on staff-to-patient ratios. But some nursing home administrators say the ratio-based ranking system fails to reflect an ongoing problem in which facilities leave beds empty because nursing homes are struggling to fill positions due to a statewide labor shortage for nurses and direct care workers. So they limit their beds to meet requirements, and now there’s a long waitlist for care.

Big Democratic donors are pouring money into Maine elections. The Associated Press reports that the Democratic National Committee’s legislative arm has reported contributing $520,000 to Maine Democratic groups since last December, while state campaign finance reports do not show contributions in Maine this year from national Republican groups. The Maine Republican Party reports raising just short of $175,000 this year, compared with just over $800,000 reported in contributions for the Maine Democratic Party, and money from liberal donors is rolling in to support a ballot question that would raise taxes on income above $128,000 to pay for home care.

We all scream for …

The BDN’s inimitable Abigail Curtis has compiled  a roundup of unusual Maine ice cream flavors. Among them are oak with whiskey sauce, chocolate spitfire and … kelp crunch.

Can I get my kelp crunch in a quinoa waffle cone?

I love to try exotic flavors. I just might have to drive to Liberty to try the Espresso Anise Swirl at John’s Ice Cream. I loved the Moxie ice cream that Frank Anicetti used to make.

As a kid, I once ate an ice cream called Hawaiian Moon. It was purple. To this day, I still do not know what was in it.

As a parent, I fed my daughters Dinosaur Crunch ice cream. It was blue going in and coming out, which is probably too much information but was something that still fascinates my older daughter.

As a despicable parent, I regularly told my kids that the vanilla ice cream they thought they had ordered was actually mashed potato. And that mint chocolate chip was broccoli with crickets.

No wonder they never call me. Here is your soundtrack. — Robert Long

Today’s Daily Brief was written by Michael Shepherd and Robert Long. If you’re reading this on the BDN’s website or were forwarded it, click here to get Maine’s only newsletter on state politics via email on weekday mornings.

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Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after time at the Kennebec Journal. He lives in Augusta, graduated from the University of Maine in 2012 and has a master's degree from the University...