By Greg Bluestein, Tia Mitchell
Stacey Abrams halted her run for Georgia governor Friday, but the Democrat said she would not concede the contest to Republican Brian Kemp and planned to launch a voting rights group to file "major" litigation challenging election policies.
As state officials prepare to certify the vote, Abrams acknowledged the law "allows no further viable remedy" to extend her quest to be the nation's first black female governor. But she laced her speech with biting criticism of Kemp, whom she accused of leveraging his role as the state's top elections official to suppress voters.
"I will not concede," she added, "because the erosion of our democracy is not right."
Kemp, who stepped down as secretary of state two days after the election, swiftly thanked Abrams for her "passion, hard work and commitment to public service," ratcheting down divisive rhetoric he'd long used to describe her.
"The election is over and hardworking Georgians are ready to move forward," Kemp said. "We can no longer dwell on the divisive politics of the past but must focus on Georgia's bright and promising future."
Abrams' speech marked the end of a campaign that made her a national star by embracing liberal issues in a state where Democrats often run toward the middle of the electorate.
She promised to enact gun control measures and decriminalize drug offenses even as she peppered her policies with centrist appeals for Medicaid expansion and increased school funding.
Abrams aimed to smash the GOP's 16-year-old grip on Georgia's top office by building a new coalition that united liberal voters, suburban moderates and left-leaning minorities by relentlessly targeting voters who often skipped midterm elections.
But the "beautiful red wall" Kemp boasted of building in rural areas sidelined her quest. With President Donald Trump's unabashed support, Kemp ran up huge vote margins in deeply conservative Georgia territory, giving him the highest vote total of any governor in state history.
Trump sent out a tweet Friday evening saluting Kemp's victory while also praising Abrams.
"Congratulations to Brian Kemp on becoming the new Governor of Georgia," Trump wrote. "Stacey Abrams fought brilliantly and hard -- she will have a terrific political future! Brian was unrelenting and will become a great Governor for the truly Wonderful People of Georgia!"
Before she stopped her bid for governor, Abrams' campaign was considering a long-shot legal challenge under a law that allows losing candidates to contest the election in the case of misconduct, fraud or "irregularities."
She would have faced a tremendous legal burden to prove her case, and even some Democrats warned that prolonging the court battle would jeopardize two down-ticket runoffs set for next month.
The secretary of state was expected to certify the election late Friday or early Saturday and cement Kemp's victory in the tightest race for Georgia governor since 1966.
The latest tally showed Abrams roughly 55,000 votes behind Kemp -- and she would have needed more than 17,000 votes to force a Dec. 4 runoff. Georgia law requires a runoff if no candidate gets a majority of the vote, which is only a possibility because a third-party contender netted about 1 percent.
'Not a speech of concession'
Abrams' campaign has long tried to make the case that Kemp used his role as secretary of state to make it harder for people to vote. He's countered by pointing to record voter registration numbers and the nearly 4 million people who cast ballots in this race.
In her fiery speech, Abrams cited long lines at voting sites, closed polling stations and the cancellation of hundreds of thousands of voter registrations.
"To watch an elected official who claims to represent the people in this state baldly pin his hopes for election on the suppression of the people's democratic right to vote has been truly appalling," Abrams said.
"So, let's be clear. This is not a speech of concession. Because concession means to acknowledge an action is right, true or proper. As a woman of conscience and faith, I cannot concede that. But my assessment is the law currently allows no further viable remedy."
To have a chance in court, Abrams would have had to prove there were enough Georgians blocked from voting to close the gap. Her campaign apparently could not meet that requirement.
Kemp's lead had dwindled since Election Day as absentee and provisional ballots trickled in. But as more counties completed their vote tallies, Abrams and her allies claimed there were thousands of outstanding ballots that never materialized.
Her campaign also went to court to force local officials to accept some previously rejected ballots.
She secured one court order that required elections officials to review as many as 27,000 provisional ballots, though it didn't require those votes to be accepted.
Another ruling required the state to count absentee ballots with incorrect birthdate data, but it rejected an effort to accept provisional ballots cast in the wrong counties.
That order, by U.S. District Judge Steve Jones, set off a scramble by county officials to revisit rejected ballots. But it left Kemp's lead virtually unchanged, even as the biggest trove of those votes, in Gwinnett County, was added to the total.
Those final ballots in Gwinnett also likely cemented the contest for Georgia's 7th Congressional District. Republican U.S. Rep. Rob Woodall led Democrat Carolyn Bourdeaux by about 400 votes, though her campaign on Friday said it will request a recount.
Abrams has long hinted at more litigation challenging "irregularities" at polling sites, and she targeted what she claimed was Kemp's abuse of the Secretary of State's Office. But she determined that new legal action wouldn't prevent Kemp's victory.
"Now, I could certainly bring a new case to keep this one contest alive, but I don't want to hold public office if I need to scheme my way into the post," she said." Because the title of governor isn't nearly as important as our shared title: voters."
Some Abrams' allies had raised alarms that the prospect of extending her legal fight would shift attention away from a pair of Democratic candidates who are already in a runoff: John Barrow for secretary of state and Lindy Miller for the Public Service Commission.
"I totally concur with the notion that every vote should be counted," said Michael Thurmond, the DeKalb County chief executive and a former Democratic state labor commissioner. "And going forward, the most effective way to do that is to focus on electing John Barrow as the next secretary of state."
Abrams' next steps are uncertain. Some Democrats, such as former U.S. Rep. Buddy Darden, are encouraging her to challenge U.S. Senate David Perdue, who stands for re-election in 2020.
"Never stop. Keep using this energy," Darden said. "Keep using these new voters."
Others, though, want her to consider running for the U.S. House if a seat is vacated or joining a national voting rights advocacy group.
Kemp, meanwhile, has quickly plunged into the work of transitioning to power.
Several of his aides were at the Capitol this week to meet with state legislators and scope out executive offices. And he's met with Gov. Nathan Deal to present himself as the victor, even as his campaign blasted Abrams for refusing to concede.
That feud escalated early Friday, when Kemp's campaign called for Abrams to end her "ridiculous temper tantrum and concede." Minutes after Abrams' speech, Kemp struck a far more conciliatory tone.
"I humbly ask for citizens of our great state to stand with me in the days ahead," he said.
"Together, we will realize the opportunities and tackle the challenges to come," Kemp said. "We will be a state that puts hardworking Georgians -- no matter their ZIP code or political preference -- first."
(c)2018 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.)