Gary Fineout and Brendan Farrington, The Associated Press
ORLANDO — Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson won a third term Tuesday as his moderate image and folksy style easily withstood a challenge from Republican Rep. Connie Mack IV, who claimed the incumbent was nothing but a liberal in disguise.
Nelson vowed to continue working to break through Washington's partisan divide.
"What I will try to continue to do as I have through my entire elected public life is to try reach across the aisle and bring people together and reach consensus so we can govern this country," Nelson said in his victory speech.
Mack, the great-grandson of the Hall of Fame baseball manager who was trying to claim the seat his father held before retiring in 2001, said he is sure Nelson will live up to the high standards set for him. But he added he will not stop fighting for the conservative values he campaigned on.
"I am very proud of the campaign that we ran," he said. "We did the right things. We talked about patriotism, we talked about dreams, we talked about freedom, we talked about the future of America."
While Florida voters were nearly evenly split on President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney, Nelson was a clear favorite despite a campaign that was relatively less active. Part of Mack's challenge was trying to break through the focus on the presidential race. He struggled for an audience that would listen and wasn't able to successfully make the case that Romney needed a Senate that would support his agenda.
With nearly 7.7 million votes counted, Nelson had more than 55 percent of the vote compared with Mack's 42 percent.
Independent voter Milly Herrera was one of those that supported Romney and still cast a ballot for Nelson.
"There are some issues where I support the Democrats and then there some issues, like small business and the economy, where I would support the Republicans," she said.
High turnout was expected in Florida, where more than 4.5 million people - about 38 percent of the electorate - had already voted in before Election Day.
Mack, 45, represents southwest Florida in Congress but for now, his political career is on hold.
Mack consistently beat the theme that Nelson supported Obama with nearly every vote, including the president's health care overhaul and the $787 billion federal stimulus.
Meanwhile, Nelson quietly raised more than $16 million compared with Mack's $6 million, and spent some of it trying to tear down Mack's reputation through television ads. He depicted Mack as a bar brawling party-boy who planned promotions for Hooters and had a hard time paying bills when he was going through a divorce. The ads referenced incidents Mack was involved in during his early 20s.
Nelson, 70, flew on a space shuttle mission while in Congress, and is a strong proponent of the space program. He co-sponsored legislation in 2010 that lays a foundation for continued space exploration.
For a senator with a target on his back, he didn't spend much time in public making a case for his re-election.
Mack tried to make a splash in this race whenever he could. He made sure he was with Romney or running mate Paul Ryan when they made one of their frequent visits to the state, knowing his fortunes were tied to the top of the ballot.
He called for more debates after the candidates only got together once. The hour-long affair was held before prime-time and gave the candidates little time to detail how they would address the rising cost of Medicare and Social Security, the budget deficit and health care. It was more of a name-calling, finger-pointing debate than a discussion on federal policy.
Mack spent the last three weeks traveling thousands of miles around the state by bus, though he spoke before mostly small crowds, often times just 20 or 30 people.
Nelson held only a couple of events. He attended a press conference Saturday calling for an extension of early voting, and on Monday, he waved signs in Orlando, where he lives, and in Melbourne, where he grew up. He also made an appearance with first lady Michelle Obama.
At Mack's election party, James Doerning, 65, of Cape Coral said he thought Mack would do well in southwest Florida, but he noted Nelson is from Orlando, a key area in the state to win.
"I like his father a whole lot," Doerning said of Mack. "I think one of the biggest things going for him is his age compared to his opponent."