SAVANNAH — The battle for Georgia governor intensified in its final hours Monday as Democrat Stacey Abrams and Republican Brian Kemp framed it as a stark choice for this growing and diversifying state, and prepared for another month of campaigning if no one wins a majority Tuesday.
At her first campaign stop in Savannah, Abrams slammed Kemp as a "bald-faced liar" who abused his powers as the sitting secretary of state when he suggested over the weekend, without offering evidence, that the Georgia Democratic Party tampered with the state's online voter database.
Kemp also made a last-day campaign stop at a private airport terminal in Savannah, where he insisted there was reason to suspect a hacking attempt, but declined to give details.
"I'm not going to get into the specifics of the investigation," Kemp told reporters. "But I can tell you I would not be calling Homeland Security, the FBI and the GBI unless we had information that we needed them to look at."
Earlier in the day, Kemp told supporters at a suburban Atlanta airplane hangar, "I've never seen a time where the state of Georgia had more at stake than we do in this contest."
Already a historic matchup, with Abrams trying to become the first black woman elected governor in U.S. history, it has morphed in recent weeks from a battle of clear ideological differences into a racially charged argument over ballot access and voter fraud. A last-minute fracas about Georgia's voting system raised the specter of a disputed result.
Both candidates are seeking to cobble together enough votes to win outright on Tuesday. If neither Kemp nor Abrams wins a majority — a distinct possibility with a Libertarian candidate on the ballot — there could be another month of campaigning.
More than 2 million Georgians have cast early ballots. That's about 80 percent of the total votes cast four years ago. There are almost 7 million registered voters in the state.
Kemp, a 54-year-old businessman who has been secretary of state since 2010, has embraced President Donald Trump as he tries to extend GOP dominance in a state that hasn't elected a Democrat to its top job since 1998. Trump visited Georgia on Sunday for a mega rally in conservative central Georgia. Kemp stormed to the GOP nomination with ads featuring everything from the candidate cranking a chain saw and jokingly pointing a gun toward a teen boy suitor of his daughter to Kemp's offer to "round up criminal illegals" himself in his pickup truck.
Abrams, a 44-year-old Yale Law graduate and former state legislative leader, has run as an unapologetic liberal as she looks to establish Georgia as a legitimate two-party battleground ahead of the 2020 presidential campaign. She touts her work with Republican state lawmakers but pledges to expand Medicaid insurance and prioritize public funding of education.
She also backs tighter gun restrictions and supports removing Confederate monuments from state property. Abrams cruised to the Democratic nomination after encountering initial resistance from old-guard Georgia Democrats who backed her white opponent, in part out of concerns that a black woman could not win in November. Since then, she's been a fundraising juggernaut, raising millions from beyond Georgia, and she's drawn a parade of notable supporters, most recently former President Barack Obama and media icon Oprah Winfrey.
Abrams and voting rights advocates have accused Kemp of using his office to make it harder for certain voters, particularly minorities, to vote. Kemp counters that Abrams and affiliated groups are trying to help people, including noncitizens, vote illegally.
Those tensions exploded in the home stretch after a private citizen raised concerns that the voter database Kemp is responsible for as secretary of state is hackable, meaning a bad actor could potentially alter or delete a voter's information in the files used to check-in voters at polling places. The citizen made his findings available late last week to the state Democratic Party and to an attorney who flagged the concern to the FBI and to Kemp's office. Before any of that became public, Kemp's state office declared Sunday that it was investigating Georgia Democrats.
Kemp acknowledged to reporters Monday "a potential vulnerability that we found out about" but insisted the state's election systems are secure. When pressed about the optics of using his office to investigate his opposition days before an election, Kemp said he "wasn't worried about how it looks," adding "this is how we would handle any investigation."
For her part, Abrams alluded to years of court fights with Kemp over voter registration rules. Democrats also have blasted Kemp over 53,000 voter registrations that his office flagged as pending ahead of Tuesday's election. Those voters will be able to vote, he says, as long as they show proper identification like every other voter. Kemp says he's following federal and state election law.
"I've got an opponent who not only is an architect of voter suppression, but he's a bald-faced liar," Abrams told more than 200 people at a union hall for longshoremen who work at Savannah's port. "I don't use that term lightly. ... But when he was told on Friday that he had once again failed in his job, instead of fixing the problem he blamed the Democratic Party of Georgia. He made up a story like a 6-year-old trying to cover his tracks."
Abrams acknowledges the historic nature of her candidacy. But, she said she doesn't want that to drive the outcome.
"I don't want anyone to vote for me because I'm black," she said. "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."