By Greg Bluestein
Republican Brian Kemp on Thursday resigned as Georgia's secretary of state, saying he needs to start the work of transitioning to the state's top office after earning a "clear and convincing victory" at the ballot box.
But Stacey Abrams is not conceding anything yet, hopeful that a trove of provisional ballots could be enough to swing the race into a runoff.
Her campaign unveiled a litigation team poised to take the fight to the courts, and that an additional 25,632 Abrams votes will push this race into runoff territory.
Kemp's office has said there are roughly 25,000 outstanding provisional and absentee ballots, but has not yet released a detailed account of where they exist.
"The votes are not there for her," Kemp said. "I respect the hard-fought race she ran. But we won the race and we're moving forward."
His resignation as secretary of state was likely to be assailed by Democrats, who long questioned how he could oversee the state's election process even as he ran for Georgia's highest office.
Kemp said he wasn't concerned about those critiques and "wasn't going to run from my job," but said that a new secretary of state will "give the public confidence in the certification process" that's expected to be completed next week.
Gov. Nathan Deal appointed longtime ally Robyn Crittenden, who is commissioner of the state Department of Human Services, to the post. He said Kemp's resignation was "very important" to help him prepare for the transition.
The legal battle, meanwhile, is well underway on other fronts.
The state chapter of the NAACP filed a pair of lawsuits claiming that students at Spelman College and Morehouse College were improperly forced to vote with a provisional ballot _ or dissuaded from voting at all _ because their names didn't show up on voter registration lists.
And the second seeks to preserve the right for voters in the Pittman Park Recreation Center area to cast ballots. That was the precinct where massive lines formed because of too few polling machines. Even after five additional voting devices were delivered, some people waited four hours at the Atlanta site.
Abrams has urged supporters to prepare for a Dec. 4 runoff, which would be required if neither candidate holds a majority of the vote when the counting ends. The latest vote tally had Kemp nearly 63,000 votes ahead of Abrams _ and about 13,000 votes over the 50 percent threshold.
In an early-morning memo Tuesday and two teleconferences hours later, Abrams' aides tried to outline a path to avoid a defeat even as they criticized Kemp for remaining in his role as secretary of state while he ran for governor.
Abrams campaign manager Lauren Groh-Wargo said the Democrat would benefit from thousands of provisional ballots cast by voters who ran into difficulties at polling sites, and the possibility that mail-in votes were delayed by complications related to Hurricane Michael.
Her campaign has also urged the state to appoint a "nonpartisan bureaucrat" to oversee the certification of results, which is likely to take place next week, instead of Kemp.
The secretary of state had long refused calls to resign or recuse himself, saying he has a constitutional obligation to fulfill his term.
As some of the final returns trickled in, Kemp's campaign aggressively made the case to reporters that it's mathematically impossible for Abrams to force the race into overtime.
Glen Bolger, Kemp's pollster, said there were about 3,000 absentee ballots still pending and an estimated 22,000 provisional ballots. In 2016, with a slightly larger electorate, 7,592 of 16,739 provisional ballots were counted.
And a string of Republican officials rushed to congratulate "governor-elect" Kemp, including Deal, House Speaker David Ralston and U.S. Sens. Johnny Isakson and David Perdue.
Kemp also moved quickly to set up his transition team, announcing campaign manager Tim Fleming would serve as his chief of staff, and that David Dove, his office's former legal counsel, would head up his transition team.
Wary of losing the media battle, Abrams has pushed back on Kemp's narrative that his victory is a foregone conclusion.
Her campaign has called on Kemp's office to release a county-by-county breakdown of where the 25,000 or so votes remain. Groh-Wargo said many of these ballots are in predominantly Democratic areas.
"The voters of Georgia deserve to have their questions answered and their votes counted before the sitting secretary of state crowns himself governor," the campaign said.
The post-election saga marks a new phase in a scathing nationally-watched race between bitter rivals.
Kemp built his lead by staking a claim on rural Georgia, where he got a higher vote share than even Donald Trump in some deep-red bastions. He relentlessly appealed to social conservatives and Trump supporters, closing his campaign with a raucous rally with the president in Macon.
It paid off. The 1.97 million votes he earned was the highest a gubernatorial candidate in Georgia has ever achieved, part of soaring turnout that was closer to presidential levels than normally more sedate midterms. And it fell just behind Trump's vote total in 2016.
Just as conservative parts of Georgia got redder, liberal bastions of the state turned bluer. Hillary Clinton won DeKalb County _ the state's biggest Democratic stronghold _ with 79 percent in 2016. Abrams' support there tops 83 percent.
Abrams also led a surge through Atlanta's suburbs to carry Cobb and Gwinnett counties _ two former GOP bastions that turned blue for the first time in decades in 2016. And she narrowly won Henry County, another suburban county that's gone from reliably red to perpetually purple.
That buoyed down-ticket candidates who clobbered Republicans in the suburbs, where Democrats picked up about a dozen legislative seats. A string of powerful GOP incumbents in the city's northern stretches were ousted, including U.S. Rep. Karen Handel.
(c)2018 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.)