Former Gov. Angus King will be Maine’s next U.S. Senator, winning one of the most closely watched Senate races in the country, according to the Associated Press.

The independent who hopes to shake up partisan gridlock spoke to supporters in Freeport just before 9 p.m.

“Tonight the people of Maine have said, ‘Enough. This far and no farther. We respect political differences, but we want to move a little closer to the center, to solutions … to mutual respect.’ That’s the message of today’s election,” King said. “Today, we got a little closer.”

The 68-year-old, Harley Davidson-riding, politically independent former two-term governor weathered a storm of negative television ads from out-of-state groups trying to elect a Republican majority to the Senate.

The race topped $10 million in total spending, including roughly $4 million from outside groups attacking King and about $3 million spent by groups – including national Democrats – that came to his defense.

Republican nominee Charlie Summers has arrived at the Regency Hotel in Portland to applause from his supporters. But Summers has not yet conceded.

Summers told a crowd of about 30 people at the Portland Regency that he is not ready to give up the race until more votes are counted.

“We will monitor things as they go along and come back in a little while,” he said. The crowd applauded.

Democratic nominee Cynthia Dill is watching returns at her home and plans to speak later to supporters at Bayside Bowl in Portland.

King will replace Republican Olympia Snowe, who held the seat for 18 years and was one of the Senate’s most moderate members.

Snowe was considered a shoo-in for re-election until she shocked the political world with her announcement in February that she would retire because of the polarized, hyper-partisan atmosphere in the Senate.

King has been the frontrunner since just days after Snowe’s announcement, when he said he was running to break through the gridlock that drove Snowe to retire and stalled Congressional action on the debt and the economy.

While Summers was not conceding, Snowe called King to congratulate him.

“I have known Angus for many years and worked closely with him on issues critical to Maine during his two terms as Governor,” Snowe said in a written statement on the results. “I know he cares deeply about Maine people and the future of our nation, and I called him this evening to congratulate him on his victory.  We had a very good conversation — I offered anything I could do to assist him with a smooth transition, and we will be meeting toward that end in the near future.” 

Maine’s soon-to-be senior senator, Republican Susan Collins, also issued a written statement congratulating King.
 
“I’m sure that Angus and I will be meeting soon to discuss committee assignments and how we can work together to meet the challenges facing our state and our nation,” Collins said.

King, a Brunswick resident, served as Maine’s independent governor from 1995 to 2003 and afterward founded a wind energy business, lectured at Bowdoin and served on the boards of several businesses.

He will be one of two independents in the Senate along with Bernie Sanders of Vermont. But, while Sanders is one of the Senate’s most liberal voices, King is a political moderate and said he intends to build a centrist coalition to try to break through the partisan gridlock that has stalled action on the federal debt and job-creation bills.

King has refused to say which party he would side with if the Senate ends up evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, although both parties clearly expect him to caucus with the Democrats.

He spoke to National Public Radio shortly after the polls closed and repeated his position that he will wait to decide which party, if any, to support. He said he will be talking to Senate leaders over the next several weeks.

“I want to talk about how independent I can remain. My goal is to be as independent as I can be as long as I can be,” King said. “I also want to talk about whether there are some changes that can be made to the Senate rules so that the place can work better…. That’s what I’ve been hearing on the street for eight months – ‘go down there and get them to talk to each other.’ “

King faced an aggressive challenge from Summers, who won a six-way primary in his fourth bid for statewide office. The 52-year-old former state senator and state director for Snowe made three unsuccessful bids for Congress.

Summers’ Senate campaign got the backing of roughly $4 million worth of anti-King television ads aired by out-of-state pro-Republican groups. King countered with his own ads calling for voters to reject outside influences.

King even got help from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which never endorsed the party’s own long-shot candidate, but paid for television ads attacking Summers.

Dill won her party’s primary but has seen most of her party members back King in the polls.

Democrats were nervous about a repeat of the 2010 race for governor, when they split their votes between their party’s nominee and a moderate independent and effectively helped elect Republican Paul LePage.

Dill, a 42-year-old lawyer regarded as a steadfast partisan, urged Democrats to not vote out of fear, but never was able to rise out of a distant third place in the pre-election polls.

King clearly had strong support at southern and coastal Maine polling places.

James McKenzie, 52, cast his vote for King at the South Portland Community Center Tuesday afternoon.

“I am independent and I think that us independents – we’re not ideologues,” said McKenzie, a full-time student.

McKenzie said “it’s ridiculous” that partisan polarization has crippled Congress and drove Olympia Snowe to retire.

“(Snowe) couldn’t vote her conscience anymore because of all the idiots on the right trying to make the Republicans all act a certain way, and the same thing happens on the left,” he said.

McKenzie said he hopes that one independent from Maine can make a difference. “I think he’ll be able to make more of a difference than if a Democrat or Republican is elected.”

Reginald Butler, a 27-year-old from Falmouth, said he had voted for Snowe since he was 18.

“I was sad I couldn’t vote for Olympia this time around,” said Butler.

In the end, Butler chose the candidate he felt was more moderate, like Snowe. And it wasn’t Summers, who took a pledge against tax increases and staked out other conservative positions during the campaign.

“I went to Angus because I was not into the tea party candidate,” Butler said, referring to Summers. “I hate voting for the rich guy but that’s how it goes.”

Michael Fitzgerald, of Falmouth, said he voted a straight Republican ticket, including for Summers.

King was likeable and did an acceptable job as governor, he said. But at the last minute, Fitzgerald decided it was important to get more Republicans in Congress.

Christina Briggs, an Obama supporter, also voted for King, but said it was a hard choice between King and Dill.

“I struggled with this. It was difficult for me,” she said. “He really has the best interests of Maine in mind. He won’t be partial to one side or the other. He’ll vote for what’s best and not the party line.”

Cynthia Hudson said she voted for Democrats for the most part.

“I decided to go with party lines. I’m sick and tired of the filibustering and I’m going to make my party as strong as possible,” said Hudson, a Democrat.

But Hudson voted also for Angus King in the U.S. Senate race.

“I don’t agree with everything he does and says, but he’s a businessman and he’s a known quantity. I want new people in Washington,” she said.

Ray Waite, a 62-year-old lobsterman from Yarmouth, said he usually votes for Republicans, but voted for King because he would “do what’s best for the country rather than what’s best for a party and special interests.”

Ann Casady, a 58-year-old graphic designer from Yarmouth, said she voted for King because Dill is not politically viable.


“I am a die-hard Democrat, and I’m afraid the Republican would win,” she said.


Amy Aldredge, a Yarmouth Democrat, voted for King because she said he is thoughtful, intelligent and articulate.
 “He has a proven track record,” she said.

Even in heavily Democratic downtown Portland, King appeared to have lots of votes.

Shawn Kelleher, a 30-year-old who voted at Portland’s East End School, said her vote for King was the only one that strayed from the Democratic Party line.

“My vote went in the direction of what seemed like a series of team players,” she said.

Will Kessler, a 33-year-old Portlander, said he liked a lot of what Cynthia Dill had to say. But, he said, he thought a vote for King would be more strategic because of the potential spoiler effect.

Before heading into the voting booth, he said, “I’m leaning King.”