By Jenny Jarvie
Stacey Abrams, the Democratic candidate in Georgia's bitterly disputed governor's race, refused to concede defeat Wednesday, activating a legal team as her opponent, Republican Brian Kemp, declared victory.
On Wednesday evening -- with nearly all 3.9 million votes counted and Abrams trailing Kemp by fewer than 63,000 votes -- the Abrams campaign said that it was 25,700 votes shy of triggering a runoff and 23,800 votes from a recount and that she would not concede until it was clear every last vote was tallied.
"Make no mistake: This race is not over," Abrams said on Twitter. "My team will continue to work around the clock to make sure that every ballot is counted -- because voting is the bedrock and lifeblood of our democracy."
But the prospect of a runoff -- which would take place Dec. 4 if no candidate in the three-person race secured 50 percent of the vote -- appeared to be growing slimmer.
The office of the secretary of state -- who happens to be Kemp -- issued a statement saying that fewer than 3,000 nonprovisional votes remained across the state and county officials reported fewer than 22,000 provisional ballots cast.
With 50.3 percent of the vote -- compared with 48.7 percent for Abrams and less than 1 percent for Libertarian candidate Ted Metz -- the Kemp campaign declared victory.
"Brian Kemp earned nearly 2 million votes on Tuesday -- by far the most of any gubernatorial candidate in our state's history," Cody Hall, Kemp's press secretary, said in a statement late Wednesday afternoon. "Simply put, it is mathematically impossible for Stacey Abrams to win or force a run-off election."
Abrams, Georgia's former state House minority leader who hopes to make history as the nation's first black female governor, has consistently accused Kemp of voter suppression and questioned why he continues to supervise his own election.
"Our opponent has had his secretary of state's office declare himself the victor, and we are here tonight to say that we do not accept that," Abrams' campaign manager, Lauren Groh-Wargo, said in a conference call with reporters.
The campaign's legal team, which includes lawyers who worked on the Bush vs. Gore presidential election case in Florida in 2000, will review Georgia election law and compile information about voting irregularities in polling stations with long lines and broken machines.
Republicans were quick to dismiss Democratic hopes, with Kemp telling supporters early Wednesday: "The math is on our side."
"Turn out the lights, the party's over," tweeted GOP pollster Glen Bolger.
"Brian Kemp is going to be Governor of Georgia without a runoff," Erick Erickson, the conservative American blogger and radio host, said on Twitter. "He won fair and square."
Whatever the outcome, many Georgians are bracing for an extended showdown over voting rights.
Over the last few decades, a wave of transplants from elsewhere in the country has moved to metro Atlanta, shifting the state's demographics in a direction favorable for Democrats. Since Kemp took over as secretary of state in 2010, he has introduced a raft of strict voter requirements that have shut down hundreds of polling stations and purged hundreds of thousands of Georgians from electoral rolls.
"What I told myself when I woke up this morning was this was just a battle in a long war and we continue to fight for democracy," said Carol Anderson, professor of African American studies at Emory University in Atlanta.
"There seems to be some kind of shock that people are questioning the legitimacy of this election," she added. "There shouldn't be a surprise. We knew -- you knew and I knew -- it was going to be a dogfight. It's like being the referee in the Super Bowl, but you're also playing on one of the teams. That's what this is."
Last month, a coalition of civil rights groups filed a federal lawsuit accusing Kemp of undermining the voting rights of minority Georgians by blocking more than 50,000 voter registrations -- nearly 70 percent of them submitted by black applicants.
Two hours before polls closed Tuesday, a group of Georgia voters represented by Protect Democracy, a nonpartisan nonprofit group, filed an emergency federal lawsuit seeking to bar Kemp from presiding over his election, alleging that the arrangement violated their constitutional right to due process.
As Georgia Democrats dig in for a lengthy dispute over ballots -- the deadline for counties to certify their election results is next Tuesday and the state deadline is Nov. 20 -- the Rev. Raphael Warnock, senior pastor of the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, said Abrams had already won a victory of sorts.
Not only was voter turnout historic -- more than 3.9 million Georgians voted, compared with 2.5 million in 2014 -- but Abrams had succeeded in her strategy of mobilizing tens of thousands of minority voters.
"We are seeing unfold before our very eyes a new South that is progressive and inclusive and increasingly embracing of the future," Warnock said. "Georgia will never be the same because of her candidacy."
Still, despite the high turnout, a question mark hovered over the race, he said.
"Because Brian Kemp has abused his power in such a flagrant way, to play games with the process, there's a way in which we still don't know what the Georgia electorate is saying in this moment _ and we may never know, because of the people that he has purged from the rolls," Warnock said.
"In a real sense, the margin of this race may well be decided by the depth of the secretary of the state's corruption."
The race was Georgia's closest gubernatorial election since 1966, the first time a Republican ran for governor in the 20th century, said Charles S. Bullock III, a professor of political science at the University of Georgia.
The closeness of the race showed that Republican power has been receding in Georgia, he said. While Democrats were not the majority party in Georgia, he said, they had become fully competitive and Democrats picked up a smattering of seats in Georgia's state House and Senate.
"There's been a flashing red light for Republicans -- be careful! You're running out of votes!" Bullock said. "Now that flashing red light has been replaced by a siren."
Erickson, too, issued a warning, telling his fellow conservatives that while Kemp's alignment with President Donald Trump allowed him to bolster his rural base, it also cost him a significant portion of suburban metro Atlanta voters.
"Republicans are really going to have to think carefully of just how much they want to be in the President's shadow," Erickson tweeted. "Suburban voters who tend to vote Republican clearly do not like Trump."
Abrams had a simple message for the hundreds of supporters -- including Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, civil rights activist the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Kandi Burruss of "The Real Housewives of Atlanta" -- who packed the ballroom of the Hyatt Regency in downtown Atlanta on election night.
"In Georgia, civil rights has always been an act of will and a battle for our souls," she told the crowd. "And because we have been fighting this fight since the beginning, we have learned a fundamental truth: Democracy only works when we work for it, when we fight for it, when we demand it."
(c)2018 Los Angeles Times