AUGUSTA – Democrats chose Rep. Emily Cain of Orono as House minority leader Thursday during a caucus in which they struggled to accept their loss of power and vowed to get it back in two years.

Cain, 30, is an up-and-comer in the party who served in the last session as House chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee.

She had her sights set on becoming House speaker, but when Democrats unexpectedly lost control of the House on Election Day, she entered the race for minority leader.

“Today is surreal for me,” she told fellow Democrats. “Today’s caucus is not how I imagined it would be.”

Republicans control the House for the first time since 1974. Fueled by victories in rural parts of the state, they now have a 78-72 majority, with one unenrolled member. Going into the election, Democrats held 95 seats.

Throughout their speeches in the House chamber, Democrats repeatedly stumbled by referring to themselves as the majority party, then issued quick corrections.

In nominating speeches, they talked about the need to communicate better with voters and redouble their efforts to win back the House.

“We will need to win back the hearts and minds of Maine citizens,” said Rep. Seth Berry of Bowdoinham, one of two people who ran against Cain for minority leader.

Berry touted his experience as majority whip in the last two-year session and his efforts to help Democrats get elected by raising money and giving campaign advice.

Berry was frank in his assessment of the role of the minority party.

“The best we can do is eke out a few minor victories in what will be a tough two years,” he said.

Rep. Cynthia Dill of Cape Elizabeth, who entered the race only within the last few weeks, presented herself as a moderate and a lawyer who would be capable of pushing back against Republicans.

“I disagree that our goal over the next two years is to win back the majority,” she said. “I intend to create a legislative record so those who run as a Democrat have something to run on.”

Cain, who has a degree in vocal music education from the University of Maine and a master’s degree in higher education from Harvard University, said she wants Democrats to use their experience to help craft policy.

“Being in the minority party does not mean you have to be the party of ‘no,’” she told her colleagues. “We have the opportunity to be the party of ‘not that, but this, and here’s why.’

Cain pointed out that, despite being in the minority, Democrats have more incumbent members than Republicans.

She vowed to work hard to win back seats in 2012, even though she will not be eligible to run for the House again because of term limits.

“The people of Maine have given us an opportunity to hit the reset button and look in the mirror,” she said.

Democrats chose Rep. Terry Hayes of Buckfield as assistant minority leader — sometimes called the whip — after two rounds of balloting. Hayes defeated Rep. Mike Carey of Lewiston and Rep. Sharon Treat of Hallowell.

Hayes, who is entering her fifth year of legislative service, gave the shortest acceptance speech of the day.

“Thank you very much,” she said. “Let’s get to work.”

MaineToday Media State House Writer Susan Cover can be contacted at 620-7015 or at:

scover@mainetoday.com