Democrat Stacey Abrams ended her campaign for governor of Georgia on Friday, lamenting voting irregularities that she said tainted the election but conceding that former Georgia secretary of state Brian Kemp would be declared the winner.
Abrams, who had hoped to become the nation’s first elected female African-American governor, had worked to force a runoff with Kemp, who as of late Thursday led by 54,801 votes out of 3.9 million cast.
Kemp’s 50.22 percent of the tally put the Republican just above the 50 percent-plus-one-vote threshold required to avoid a runoff election in December.
Abrams said that she planned to start an organization to fight for more equitable voting laws and would soon bring “a major federal lawsuit against the state of Georgia for gross mismanagement of this election.”
“Let’s be clear, this is not a speech of concession,” she said.
It was, however, the end of a campaign whose outcome had remained uncertain for days as Abrams pressed for the counting of ballots that had been rejected for minor errors. Kemp drew criticism from Democrats for championing a controversial voting law disproportionately affecting black voters and, days before the midterms, launching an investigation into Democrats, alleging a “hacking” attempt into the voter registration system.
Earlier Friday, Abrams was considering filing a separate lawsuit contesting the results and demanding a new election. That would have been based on a provision in Georgia law that allows losing candidates to challenge results.
But she said Friday evening that she did not want to gain an office if she had to “scheme” to get it.
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Kemp’s campaign had called the move “sad and desperate” and had called on Abrams, the former Democratic leader of the Georgia House of Representatives, to concede.
“Since the beginning, our campaign has been dedicated to lifting up the voices of every community,” Lauren Groh-Wargo, Abrams’ campaign manager, said in a statement early Friday. “We have heard from countless Georgians about massive irregularities wrought by a Secretary of State who ran his own election to crown himself governor. We have been transparent that we have looked into multiple legal strategies to count every vote in our state - and that work continues as we decide our next steps.”
Kemp, who declared victory two days after the Nov. 6 election, has said he is moving forward with his transition plans.
“Gov.-elect Brian Kemp earned a clear and convincing victory on Election Day. The campaign is over, and Kemp’s focus is on building a safer, stronger future for Georgia families,” Kemp campaign spokesman Ryan Mahoney said. “Stacey Abrams’s latest publicity stunt is sad and desperate. Elections in America aren’t decided in the courtroom. They’re decided fair and square by the people, at the ballot box.”
Abrams, 44, and Kemp, 55, have long clashed over voting rights. Four years ago, Abrams founded the New Georgia Project, with a goal of adding hundreds of thousands of people of color to the voting rolls. Abrams is no longer affiliated with the group that she says signed up more than 200,000 potential new voters, but most of them never made it onto the rolls.
Kemp accused the group of voter fraud and launched an investigation that found no wrongdoing. He has pursued restrictive voter registration and identification laws and has purged more than 1 million voters from the rolls in recent years - actions that Abrams and activists say amount to suppression.
Several of those laws have been successfully challenged in court as violations of the federal Voting Rights Act, including rulings that have come down before and since the Nov. 6 election.
During the past 10 days, the Abrams campaign, through court filings and news conferences, has shared stories of individuals who had trouble casting ballots.
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Voters told of having waited up to four hours to vote, not receiving absentee ballots that they requested and getting inaccurate information from county elections officials. The lawsuits also have revealed a lack of uniformity in how counties address problems with absentee and provisional ballots. Although some counties try to contact voters to fix mistakes and omissions in their voting documents, others simply reject the ballots.
Kemp’s victory was made possible through a come-from-behind surge in the Republican primary earlier this year, in which he received the endorsement of President Trump and aired a series of provocative TV ads in which he wielded guns and pledged to round up “criminal illegals” in his pickup truck.
Abrams had received support from former presidents Barack Obama and Jimmy Carter as well as media mogul Oprah Winfrey. She made health care a major focus of her campaign, as did other Democrats around the country in this year’s midterms.
The issue of race loomed large over the campaign in its final weeks, however. A racist and anti-Semitic robo-call targeting Abrams began making the rounds about a week before Election Day. The call was produced by the Road to Power, a white-supremacist group based in Idaho. Kemp’s campaign also came under criticism for an election-eve tweet attempting to tie Abrams to a radical group, the New Black Panther Party.
The razor-thin margin between Abrams and Kemp is reflective of Georgia’s march from once-solid Republican terrain toward becoming a purple state. Trump won Georgia by five percentage points in 2016, but Democrats’ increasing strength in the suburbs bodes well for their chances in future statewide races.
The Washington Post’s John Wagner contributed to this report.