The 2012 election is barely two weeks old, but Maine Democrats are already talking about the next one, specifically the 2014 governors race.

Their message? Third place is not an option.

“The Democratic party is going to run a serious, well-financed campaign,” said state party chairman Ben Grant. “We’re not backing down from any challenge, whether it comes from (Gov.) Paul LePage or (presumed independent candidate) Eliot Cutler.”

Inherent in such a declaration is the admission that Democrats settled for third in this year’s U.S. Senate race and that a similar finish in the 2014 gubernatorial contest is a possibility. The party’s candidates secured significant electoral victories this year, retaining both congressional seats and taking back the State House after losing it in 2010. Nonetheless, big challenges loom in an upcoming governors race that could replicate factors that have left Democrats neither bride nor bridesmaid in the past two statewide contests.

“They have to be really nervous,” said Mark Brewer, an associate professor of political science at the University of Maine. “If you come in third place in three elections in a row, that is not good.”

Grant is acutely aware of the dynamics, which center on the possibility — if not likelihood — that Cutler, who finished second in 2010, will run again. It’s the reason why Grant, emboldened by legislative victories, is talking up 2014 now and assuring party loyalists and opponents that Democrats will invest heavily in the race.

Grant is pinning the party’s hopes on its stars or a meteoric rise by lesser-known candidates. He is also urging the newly elected Democratic legislative majority to resist the urge to joust with a Republican governor who often appears to spoil for a fight.

“I think Mainers want to see adults in Augusta,” Grant said. “I don’t think anyone is interested in two years of mudslinging, and I don’t think our party is going to do that.”

Democrats have spent the past two years blasting LePage, and in some instances, fundraising off his controversial statements. Grant said the decision to temper that criticism is the “right thing to do.”

“It’s important for us to work on our own agenda and show people on an ideas level what we’re trying to do,” he said. “The governor’s actions will speak for themselves.”

There’s also a political calculation: Two years of gridlock and sparring with LePage enable the message advanced by Cutler and other independents that the two-party system is the problem.

U.S. Sen.-elect Angus King made hyper-partisanship the staple of his campaign this year, and Cutler did the same in 2010.

Cutler, of Cape Elizabeth, has not announced his 2014 candidacy. However, he has maintained a high profile after finishing a close second to LePage in 2010.

Shortly after the 2010 election, Cutler established OneMaine, a group promoting independent candidates and centrist politics. Cutler also served on the board of directors of Americans Elect, the national group originally established to put an independent presidential ticket on the 2012 ballot, but which later purchased campaign ads on King’s behalf.

Brewer, the UMaine professor, believes Cutler will run in 2014. His campaign apparatus is in place at OneMaine. A divisive political climate in Augusta could be even more enticing.

“You can’t definitely say that the next two years is going to be nothing but fights over vetoes and really nasty Maine politics, but you can certainly make the case that that’s how it’s going to go,” Brewer said. “If it goes that way, that just makes it even easier for Cutler to run as this outsider candidate, this pragmatic person that’s going to force both sides to get things done for the greater good.”

The race is also set up well for LePage, who as Brewer noted, likely needs a viable third candidate to pull off a repeat of 2010.

Nobody seems certain that LePage will seek a second term. LePage’s supporters set-up his re-election campaign committee in January, and the group Maine People Before Politics has been the governor’s political arm since his inauguration. But the governor, whose favorability has remained mostly steady according to periodic polling, has not said definitely that he’ll run. Last week he told Politico that he was unsure.

If Cutler is in the race, it may not matter to Democrats if LePage seeks re-election; the party could still face the prospect of an independent dividing the unenrolled and progressive voters in a statewide race.

Democrats also have a candidate problem.

U.S. Reps. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, and Mike Michaud, D-2nd District, are established stars. But will they run for the Blaine House? Too soon to tell, Grant said, but either would immediately change the contours of the governor’s race.

Pingree is married to S. Donald Sussman, the majority shareholder of MaineToday Media, which publishes the Portland Press Herald, the Kennebec Journal and the Morning Sentinel.

Brewer isn’t convinced Pingree is a good statewide candidate, because of the conservative 2nd Congressional District. Michaud, however, is another story.

“If I’m Ben Grant, the first thing I do is get on the phone and I beg Mike Michaud to run for governor,” said Brewer. “He’s the one Democrat who could easily be viewed as the frontrunner in a race with Eliot Cutler and Paul LePage.”

Grant waved off suggestions that Michaud could face pressure from national Democrats not to give up his seat in the 2nd District. “(For) the same forces that would want him to stay in Congress, there are equal forces that would want him to run for governor,” said Grant, referring to the Democratic Governors Association. “He can have a huge impact from the Blaine House.”

Absent a run by Michaud or Pingree, the party would be forced to draw from a pool of candidates who may not be ready, or well enough known, to run for governor. The party’s 2010 losses hampered its ability to fortify its bench — commissioner positions or constitutional officers — and elevate its public profile.

Grant hopes gaining control of the Legislature will fix that problem.

He said it would evaluate the presumptive favorites to become the Legislature’s constitutional officers, Matt Dunlap (secretary of state), Janet Mills (attorney general) and Jeremy Fischer (state treasurer); as well younger figures, former House Speaker Hannah Pingree, current House leader Rep. Emily Cain, incoming Senate President Justin Alfond and House Speaker Rep. Mark Eves.

It’s not clear if any of the above will be ready for prime time by summer of 2013, when Grant hopes Democrats will begin uniting behind one candidate.

Nonetheless, he said the party, and opponents, should know that Democrats won’t sit out 2014.

“We can craft a long-term, well-thought out plan and execute it,” he said. “That’s what’s happening right now.”