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 Democrat Stacey Abrams is not conceding anything yet, hopeful that a trove of provisional ballots and other votes not yet recorded could be enough to force the tight race into a runoff.
Her campaign unveiled a litigation team poised to take the fight to the courts as it continues a search for an additional 25,632 Abrams votes that will push this race into runoff territory.
Kemp’s office has said there are roughly 25,000 outstanding provisional and absentee ballots – making his lead virtually insurmountable – but it 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.”
At a news conference an hour later, Abrams campaign manager Lauren Groh-Wargo said other ballots could still be outstanding, including several hundred votes in Cobb County that were recently tallied.
“He owes voters an explanation,” she said. “We need to see lists, we need to see counts of every single vote. We need to see all the military provisional numbers. They all need to be counted. We do not believe any of these numbers are credible.”
A November resignation
Kemp’s resignation as secretary of state came as a federal judge held a hearing over a lawsuit seeking to block him from directing a potential recount or any other involvement in an election in which he’s a participant.
He was assailed by Democrats and other critics who long questioned how he could oversee the state’s election process even as he ran for Georgia’s highest office.
Kemp repeatedly said he wasn’t concerned about that criticism, adding that he didn’t resign earlier because he “wasn’t going to run from my job.” But he said a new elections chief will “give the public confidence in the certification process” that’s expected to be completed next week.
That post will be held by Gov. Nathan Deal, who appointed long-time ally Robyn Crittenden, the commissioner of the state Department of Human Services, to serve out Kemp’s term.
The post-election saga marks a new phase in a nationally watched race between bitter rivals that’s involved duelling news conferences, crowds of protesters that massed outside Deal’s office and a legal battle that’s well under way.
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.
The Abrams campaign also waded into the legal battle on Thursday, seeking extensions for absentee ballots in Dougherty County that were delayed after Hurricane Michael damaged parts of southwest Georgia.
A path to a runoff?
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 per cent threshold. Groh-Wargo said many of those votes were from Democratic-leaning counties who would benefit Abrams’ campaign.
“This is on Kemp. He has not done his job to provide basic guidance. We all knew there was historic interest in this election,” she said. “He has fallen down on the job and we put the blame on him.”
And pro-Abrams groups staged a demonstration at the Georgia Capitol, where dozens gathered to demand that Kemp wait until all ballots are counted before beginning his transition.
“The entire election process has been a total sham,” said Matt Wolfsen, a college student in Atlanta. “A person running their own election would be declared illegitimate in Venezuela.”
Kemp preps for transition
As some of the final returns trickled in, Kemp’s campaign aggressively made its case 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 by unveiling a litigation team of veteran elections attorneys, many of whom worked on the tangle of lawsuits after the recount of the presidential vote in 2000 in Florida.
“We have been flooded with concerns,” said Allegra Lawrence-Hardy, an attorney who chairs Abrams’ campaign. “We are in this race until we are convinced that every vote is counted. We’re prepared for this fight until every vote is counted.”
The legal fight caps a tense race for governor that attracted heaps of national attention and record-setting campaign cash.
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 were 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 per cent in 2016. Abrams’ support there tops 83 per cent.
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.