PORTLAND, Maine — Republican incumbent U.S. Sen. Susan Collins warded off a challenge from feisty Democrat Shenna Bellows on Tuesday.

Ten minutes after polls closed, the Bangor Daily News projected Collins as the winner.

In a victory speech delivered about 9:30 p.m., Collins said her priorities in a return to Washington, D.C., are creating jobs, maintaining transportation infrastructure and securing federal investments in biomedical research.

Thanking her family, friends, supporters, campaign workers and volunteers, Collins said she emulates influential Maine politicians that preceded her in the Senate, such as Margaret Chase Smith, Edmund Muskie, William Cohen, George Mitchell and the more recently retired Olympia Snowe.

“We must put an end to the hyper-partisanship and divisiveness that has blocked action on so many issues and created gridlock,” she said. “I’m going to continue to represent common sense Maine values, not to score political points, but to see the common ground.”

Democratic challenger Shenna Bellows, who spent eight years as the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, ran a spirited campaign to upend Maine’s senior senator, who was seeking a fourth term.

At 8:51 p.m., Bellows distributed an email to her supporters saying she had called Collins to “congratulate her on winning another term in the U.S. Senate.”

“We ran a campaign that stayed true to our values from the very beginning, and I am both proud and grateful for what we accomplished together,” Bellows wrote, in part. “This is just the beginning. All of us were involved in this campaign because we care about positive social change, and all of us know as well that nothing worth fighting for has ever been easy. But in the end, it’s always been worth it.”

During the campaign, Bellows sought to associate Collins with more divisive members of the GOP, including Gov. Paul LePage, and undermine her reputation as one of Congress’ most moderate and influential members.

The approach had some success — Bellows polled at between 17 percent and 24 percent support in the spring and built her backing up to the 30-35 percent range by late October — but even with a gradual climb in popularity, the challenger struggled to poll within 20 percentage points of Collins.

“A campaign statewide for the United States Senate depends not just on the candidates but on having a great grass-roots organization, and nobody has been blessed with a better group of supporters than I have,” said Collins at her election night party at the Westin Portland Harborview Hotel before the polls closed Tuesday. “We had 560 people chairing every community, every county, all of them volunteers. That’s the largest grass-roots volunteer effort ever in Maine history. There are so many people who made a difference in this campaign.”

With pundits nationwide expecting Republican gains in the midterm elections — including a shift of majority status in the U.S. Senate from Democrats to the GOP — the re-election of Collins, widely considered one of the few bridge-builders in a toxically divided Congress, could give Maine an outsized voice in the country’s decision-making.

Both Collins and Bellows engaged voters with high-profile tours of the state. In August, Collins launched a start-and-stop “All of Maine” bus tour in Bangor that ultimately took her as far south as York County.

“We have logged nearly 10,000 miles in the state of Maine, and it has been wonderful to visit more than 100 communities in this state,” Collins said Tuesday night.

Bellows burned more calories on her version, heading out on a 350-mile campaign walk from Houlton to Kittery stretching from July into August. Bellows also received an enthusiastic endorsement along the campaign trail from best-selling author Stephen King, a well-known Democratic donor who said in a television advertisement that he “never worked so hard or hoped so strongly for a change in leadership.”

“Minimum wage, increasing Social Security and equal pay for equal work dominated the debates and the media coverage, and that was really important,” Bellows said outside Ellsworth City Hall as polls closed Tuesday. “Politics should be grass-roots, and no one should be left out or left behind. Everyone, everywhere — their vote matters.”

The two candidates were divided on a number of issues leading into Tuesday’s vote. While Bellows called for a reduction in Pentagon spending, Collins, a member of the powerful Armed Services and Appropriations committees, said cutting back on national defense while terrorism threats remain high isn’t wise.

Collins also noted that thousands of Maine jobs — at Bath Iron Works, jet engine manufacturer Pratt & Whitney in North Berwick and Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery — rely on defense spending.

Bellows pledged support for the legalization of recreational use of marijuana, while Collins said she opposes it. The Democrat called for an increase of the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour, while the Republican said she would support an incremental increase to $9 from the federal minimum of $7.25.

Bellows appeared to get under Collins’ skin during the campaign by accusing the incumbent of opposing equal pay for women because of her vote against the recently proposed Paycheck Fairness Act. But the Republican countered that standing laws already prohibit paying men and women different wages for the same work, and she previously supported a bill to give women a wider window in which to sue employers if they’re being discriminated against.

Collins, who was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 1996, famously has never missed a vote in the Senate and has been called by the New York Times one of the two senators most likely to vote against her party.

Collins held a large financial advantage over Bellows, raising more than $5.1 million in campaign funds as of the most recent Oct. 15 federal filing report, while the Democrat raised just less than $2.2 million.

BDN staff reporter Bill Trotter contributed to this report.

Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.