Kemp and Abrams at Standoff in Georgia Governor’s Race

ATLANTA — Democrats and Republicans entered another bitter phase of the Georgia governor’s race early Wednesday — a standoff — with no announced winner and county elections officials scrambling to tally absentee ballots.

Unofficial returns gave Brian Kemp, the Republican nominee and Georgia’s secretary of state, a lead of about 95,000 votes over Stacey Abrams, the Democratic candidate, with 99 percent of the state’s precincts reporting at about 2:30 a.m. on Wednesday.

But news organizations, defying pressure from Republicans, did not immediately project Mr. Kemp as the winner, and Ms. Abrams would not concede. A runoff remained a possibility, and threatened to intensify the political turmoil that has gripped Georgia.

“I want to say this: If I wasn’t your first choice, or if you made no choice at all, you’re going to have a chance to do a do-over,” Ms. Abrams said at the Atlanta hotel where her supporters had gathered to watch election returns.

Republican officials argued that Ms. Abrams had no viable path to a victory that would make her the first black woman elected as governor in any state. Throughout the night in Athens, Ga., Mr. Kemp’s allies stood on the stage and confidently predicted that he, not Ms. Abrams, would move into the Governor’s Mansion in January.

“There are votes left to count, but we have a very strong lead,” Mr. Kemp said when he spoke at about 2:45 a.m. Wednesday. “Folks, make no mistake: The math is on our side to win this election.”

Although Mr. Kemp stopped just short of declaring victory, the chairman of the Georgia Republican Party, John Watson, left no doubt in his own assessment. “We have the votes, and the next governor of Georgia is going to be Brian Kemp,” he said.

But with tens of thousands of absentee ballots outstanding and officials still counting votes that were cast on Election Day, especially in the Atlanta-area counties where Ms. Abrams held an edge, Democrats insisted that their nominee could make up the deficit.

Her best hope seemed to be to whittle down Mr. Kemp’s lead and keep his vote total just shy of a majority, forcing a Dec. 4 runoff. A Libertarian candidate, Ted Metz, was drawing nearly 1 percent of the vote early Wednesday.

“We believe — we do not know — this is headed for a runoff,” Ms. Abrams’s campaign manager, Lauren Groh-Wargo, said. “So it’s going to still be a long night. This is not ending soon, and we’re unlikely to have anything definitive to say until the morning.”

A runoff would extend one of the nation’s most contentious governor’s races and deepen public debate over Mr. Kemp’s decision to remain the secretary of state, a post that allowed him to both oversee and compete in the election.

Democrats have been demanding Mr. Kemp’s resignation for weeks and have sharply criticized his record on voting issues in the state. Mr. Kemp, who has called accusations that he encouraged voter suppression a “farce,” oversaw legal purges of voter rolls and embraced a rigorous “exact match” approach to processing voter registrations.

The debate over Mr. Kemp’s work as secretary of state sharpened on Sunday, when his office announced that it had opened an inquiry into the Democratic Party of Georgia for what state officials said was an attempted hack of the voter registration system. Mr. Kemp’s office provided little information about its allegations, which sparked an inquiry by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, and Democrats assailed the announcement as a political stunt.

The inquiry was but the latest twist in the most expensive governor’s race in state history, a contest that pitted Mr. Kemp’s hard-line conservative values, particularly on immigration, against Ms. Abrams’s more liberal platform, which was built around ideas like Medicaid expansion.

Polls showed the contest to be among the nation’s most competitive governor’s races, and about 2.1 million people voted early.

Both candidates relied on enormous campaign treasuries — each raised at least $20 million — and extensive get-out-the-vote efforts. President Trump, whose support helped Mr. Kemp to capture the Republican nomination in July, traveled to the state on Sunday to campaign with Mr. Kemp, and former President Barack Obama recently visited Atlanta for a rally with Ms. Abrams.

But Democrats, confident as they were in how the state’s shifting demographics would work to their benefit, knew they faced a challenge: Georgia has not elected a Democratic governor since 1998.

By Wednesday morning, it appeared that Ms. Abrams had come far closer to winning than other recent Democratic candidates. It just was not clear whether even that would be enough.

Richard Fausset reported from Atlanta, and Alan Blinder from Athens, Ga.

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