Three days ago, state Rep. Anne Haskell, a loyal Democrat from Portland, went to her polling place and cast her ballot in Maine’s Democratic U.S. Senate primary.

So did state Sen. Elizabeth Schneider, a Democrat from Orono.

Yet there they stood Thursday — Schneider in Bangor and Haskell in Portland — proudly taking their place as county co-chairs for the independent Senate candidacy of Angus King.

“There’s a difference between Democratic politics and Democratic values,” explained Haskell, who worked as a staffer for King back when he was Maine’s governor. “And I didn’t abandon those Democratic values just because I’m supporting Angus.”

Echoed Schneider, “(King) is the best person for the job, for one. He has proven leadership experience. He’s somebody who will work with both sides of the aisle, which I think is incredibly important.”

But if I may, ladies … what about state Sen. Cynthia Dill of Cape Elizabeth, your fellow Democrat, your fellow legislator and your party’s newly minted nominee to replace Olympia Snowe in the U.S. Senate?

“I don’t think she has the experience that is necessary for the job,” Schneider replied.

Haskell put it more succinctly: “I think Angus is the better candidate.”

So much for the glow of a hard-won victory. For Dill, this week’s kickoff of the general election campaign might as well come with a banner reading, “Dill for Senate: Be careful what you wish for!”

It’s not as if nobody saw this coming. From the moment King entered the race in March and top-tier Democrats U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud and former Gov. John Baldacci all balked at the high-risk prospect of taking him on, most viewed the battle for the Democratic nomination as a race up Mount Oblivious.

But now that Dill has beaten former Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, state Rep. Jon Hinck of Portland and newcomer Benjamin Pollard, also of Portland, a much bigger uphill struggle looms: persuading Dill’s fellow Democrats that she, not that maddeningly folksy guy with the white mustache who likes to quote Joshua Chamberlain, is Maine’s best hope against a possible Republican takeover of the U.S. Senate.

“Every step of the way, I’ve been underestimated — and I’m used to it,” Dill insisted during a telephone interview Thursday. “So I can’t pay attention to the people who stand on the sidelines and shoot at me.”

Or even worse, ignore her altogether.

Less than 24 hours after the polls closed, we had Wednesday’s eyebrow-raiser out of Washington, D.C., in which Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, chairwoman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, stopped well short of a hoorah for Maine’s Democratic newcomer to the national stage.

Murray told The Hill that the committee has been “talking to a lot of people on the ground in Maine” and that Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell “already said that he has written Maine off, so I feel very good about it.”

Meaning, asked the newspaper, Murray feels good about King? Or does she feel good about Dill?

“About our prospects in Maine,” Murray replied. “I’m just going to leave it at that.”

Score that a wink, wink for King. And a grimace for Dill.

Here in Maine, the applause is at least a bit more lukewarm.

While the Maine Republican Party wasted no time Wednesday congratulating Secretary of State Charlie Summers on his primary win (and breathing a huge sigh of relief that state Treasurer Bruce Poliquin’s ego-inflated candidacy never got off the ground), Maine’s Dems finally got around to posting a news release Thursday announcing that Dill had won her “stunning darkhorse” bid for the Senate nomination. (The release was written not by the state party, but by the Dill campaign.)

“Our candidate, Cynthia Dill, has the full backing of the Democratic Party,” state Chairman Ben Grant said in an interview. “But we also know she has a challenge to increase her visibility, her name recognition and let people know more about her.”

Asked how long Dill has to hit her stride before party leaders get truly nervous, Grant replied, “I would say by September.”

This while many Maine Democrats, still smarting from Gov. Paul LePage’s triangulated victory in 2010 over independent Eliot Cutler and Democrat Libby Mitchell, already are lining up behind the ever-popular King to head off another divide-and-conquer win by the GOP’s Summers.

Consider the long list of co-chairs announced Thursday by the King campaign: Of the 55 people named, 12 are unenrolled, 18 are Republicans and 25 (count ’em) are Democrats.

Schneider, one of three Democrats serving as King’s campaign co-chairs in Penobscot County, said she voted for Dunlap on Tuesday and even contributed to his campaign back when it appeared he’d be challenging Snowe. But once Snowe dropped out and King jumped in, Schneider told Dunlap she’d be switching her allegiance to King the day after the primary.

“I think most people aren’t concerned about parties,” Schneider explained. “They’re concerned about solutions.”

Haskell, one of two Democrats co-chairing King’s campaign in Cumberland County, declined to say who got her vote Tuesday. She, too, waited until Wednesday to move into the King camp.

“I still believe in the things the Democratic Party believes in,” Haskell said. “And I think that Angus can be our best representative down there for those values that matter to me.”

Again, not exactly music to Dill’s ears.

Asked what she considers her biggest challenge between now and November, even Dill invoked the ghosts of two years past.

“My biggest challenge,” she replied, “is convincing Maine people that their fear and anxiety around the 2010 gubernatorial race and the subsequent agenda that the LePage administration rolled out shouldn’t be the basis for the decision as to who should be their voice in Washington.”

Maybe so. But even as Dill expands her fledgling operation into full-campaign mode, the steady migration of skittish Democrats toward King is well under way.

And for the unknown and untested Democratic “darkhorse,” it’s one misstep away from a full stampede.

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

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