ATLANTA — Georgia's hotly contested and potentially historic governor's race may not be over yet, with Democrat Stacey Abrams saying ballots remain to be counted in her fierce battle with Republican Brian Kemp as she tries to become the first black woman elected governor in the U.S.
With reported votes approaching 3.8 million, Kemp had about 51 percent, but Abrams and her campaign said there were enough ballots outstanding, particularly absentee ballots in heavily Democratic metro Atlanta counties, to bring the Republican below the majority threshold required for victory.
"Friends, we are still on the verge of history," Abrams told excited supporters who remained at a downtown Atlanta hotel into the early hours of Wednesday.
"We believe our chance for a stronger Georgia is just within reach, but we cannot seize it until all voices are heard, and I promise you tonight we're going to make sure that every vote is counted," she said.
If Kemp and Abrams were to finish below 50 percent, they would meet in a Dec. 4 runoff. That would mean four more weeks of bitter, race-laden campaigning in a contest that Kemp and Abrams have each described as a "battle for the soul of our state."
With most of the rest of nation finishing its midterm campaigns, that would also focus a white-hot spotlight on a race that already has drawn massive investments of time, money and star power — from President Donald Trump and former President Barack Obama to media icon Oprah Winfrey — as Abrams tries to make history and Kemp tries to keep GOP-run Georgia from sliding into presidential battleground status ahead of 2020.
Kemp has not spoken publicly to supporters gathered in his hometown of Athens but is expected to address supporters at some point.
The prospects of a runoff — or a razor-thin result — come after weeks of wrangling over a Georgia election system that Kemp runs in his post as secretary of state, leaving open the possibility that Abrams supporters may not accept a loss.
Abrams has called Kemp "an architect of suppression," and voting rights activists expressed concerns throughout Tuesday amid widespread reports of technical malfunctions and long lines at polling stations came in from across the state, with some voters reporting waits of up to three hours to cast ballots.
The elections chief wasn't immune to the difficulties: When Kemp went to cast his ballot, he had an issue with his voter card, but it was fixed quickly. He walked by reporters and said, "Take Two."
Kemp has steadfastly defended his job performance and refused calls to step aside — the latest coming in an Election Day lawsuit.
Abrams, a 44-year-old Atlanta attorney, former lawmaker and moonlighting romance novelist, would be the first black woman in American history elected governor in any state and the first woman or nonwhite governor in Georgia history. She's already made history as the first black woman to be a major-party gubernatorial nominee.
Kemp, a 54-year-old businessman and veteran secretary of state, is vying to maintain the GOP's hold on a state that is nearing presidential battleground status courtesy of its growth and diversity. Republicans have won every Georgia governor's race since 2002.
Ballot access and election integrity flared up in the final weekend after a private citizen alerted the Georgia Democratic Party and a private attorney of vulnerability in the online voter database Kemp that oversees in his job as secretary of state. Those private communications ended up with Kemp announcing, without providing any evidence, that he was launching an investigation into Georgia Democrats for "possible cybercrimes."
Kemp pushed back Monday against concerns that his call for an investigation is politically motivated. But Abrams would have none of that, declaring Kemp a "bald-faced liar" intent on deflecting attention from security problems with his system.
Nonprofit Protect Democracy said in a news release that it filed a lawsuit Tuesday seeking to keep Kemp from being involved in counting votes, certifying results or any runoff or recount. The lawsuit says that Kemp presiding over an election in which he is a candidate "violates a basic notion of fairness." Secretary of state's office spokeswoman Candice Broce called the lawsuit a "twelfth-hour stunt."
The contest has been so intense that early voting has approached the overall number of ballots cast in the governor's race four years ago.
"I've never seen a time where the state of Georgia had more at stake than we do in this contest," Kemp told supporters at one of his final campaign stops.
In the closing days, Kemp basked in President Donald Trump's glow, after a Sunday rally that drew thousands of boisterous Republicans to central Georgia to see Trump deplane from Air Force One.
Abrams, meanwhile, continued as she has throughout her campaign noting the potential historical significance but arguing the contest should be about more.
"I don't want anyone to vote for me because I'm black," she told supporters in Savannah on Monday. "And no one on the ballot needs a vote because we're women. And I don't even want you to vote for us just because we're Democrats. You need to vote for us because we're better."
On policy, the principal dividing lines are health care (Abrams wants to expand Medicaid insurance; Kemp wants to maintain Georgia's refusal and boost rural hospitals); education (Kemp supports private school vouchers; Abrams opposes them); and criminal justice (Kemp is a law-and-order Republican; Abrams focuses on rehabilitating non-violent offenders and criticizes cash bail as unfair to poorer defendants).
The Georgia outcome is among the most closely watched of any midterm contest for reasons beyond Abrams' race and gender. Democrats picked up several governor's seats across the country Tuesday, but flipping what has been a GOP stronghold like Georgia would signal a potential meaningful shift in the electorate and open up a new battleground ahead of 2020.