ATLANTA — Republicans claimed victory for Brian Kemp in Georgia’s acrimonious race for governor Wednesday evening, but the race remained too close to call, and Stacey Abrams, the Democratic contender, did not concede defeat.
Mr. Kemp’s campaign asserted that it was no longer mathematically possible, as Democrats believed, for the remaining uncounted ballots in the race to force him into a runoff with Ms. Abrams, who was bidding to become the first black woman to be elected governor of any American state.
After local election workers spent the day tabulating absentee ballots, Mr. Kemp had 50.3 percent of the vote, and a lead of about 63,000 votes, out of nearly four million cast.
As Georgia’s secretary of state, Mr. Kemp oversees the state’s elections. His office said Wednesday evening that there were fewer than 25,000 ballots left to be counted in the race, 22,000 of them provisional ballots.
“Peach State voters made a clear decision at the ballot box,” Cody Hall, a spokesman for Mr. Kemp, said Wednesday afternoon. “Brian Kemp will now begin his transition as governor-elect of Georgia.”
But Lauren Groh-Wargo, Ms. Abrams’s campaign manager, flatly rejected Mr. Kemp’s claim of victory and demanded that his office release additional information about the pending votes. Of the victory claim, she said, “We are here tonight to say we do not accept that.”
Ms. Abrams’s campaign scoured Georgia’s 159 counties for untallied votes on Wednesday and prepared for the possibility of legal challenges to what they saw as a troubled election mismanaged by Mr. Kemp.
Polls had shown for weeks that the race was very close, and that emerging from Election Day with no clear winner was a distinct possibility. Adding to the uncertainty were the complications and mistrust injected into the contest by Mr. Kemp, who brushed aside repeated calls for him to step aside as the main overseer of an election in which he was a candidate.
A group of Georgia voters represented by the nonprofit group Protect Democracy filed suit in federal court late on Tuesday seeking to force Mr. Kemp’s recusal from supervising the election. A hearing is scheduled for Thursday.
The Abrams campaign began Wednesday believing that substantial numbers of absentee and provisional ballots still to be counted would narrow Mr. Kemp’s lead and deny him an outright majority. Most were thought to be from populous Atlanta-area counties that Ms. Abrams was winning handily. With a Libertarian candidate, Ted Metz, drawing around 1 percent of the vote, a significant net gain for Ms. Abrams might be enough to require a runoff, her campaign calculated.
“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 early Wednesday at the Atlanta hotel where her supporters had gathered to watch election returns.
The Abrams campaign also complained that there had been “significant irregularities” in elections procedures, and faulted Mr. Kemp for the problems. “The onus is on our campaign to fight for fairness, for a fair election,” Ms. Groh-Wargo said.
The campaign said it still expected thousands of outstanding mail ballots to flow into Athens, a college town with a significant tranche of liberal voters (and also Mr. Kemp’s hometown). Thousands more mail-in ballots may still be in the postal system from Dougherty County, which was hit hard by Hurricane Michael; mail to and from the county was rerouted through Tallahassee, Fla.
Election workers were still counting votes Wednesday in Georgia’s Gwinnett County.CreditRuth Fremson/The New York Times
Statewide, the Abrams campaign said, it was aware of “thousands of potential votes that need to be counted, and potentially thousands more that we don’t yet know about.”
Many of those uncounted ballots were cast provisionally by people who did not present identification that exactly matched election records. Under state law, those voters must return to county election offices within three days and clear up the problem for their votes to be counted.
The Abrams campaign said it would immediately begin running radio and print ads encouraging voters to do so.
Although Republicans believed Mr. Kemp was the clear winner in the race, The Associated Press and other major news organizations refrained from projecting him as the victor on Wednesday, defying pressure from party leaders. The A.P. sent an advisory to its members on Wednesday saying that the race remained too close to call, in part because “election officials say tabulation continues in several large counties.”
If a runoff is required, it will only intensify a race that was already among the nation’s most contentious — not least because of Mr. Kemp’s decision to remain secretary of state.
Democrats 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, among other steps that have drawn criticism.
The argument over Mr. Kemp’s role 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 hacking 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. Democrats assailed the announcement as a political stunt.
Mistrust of Mr. Kemp and the state’s election machinery was palpable on the campus of Morehouse College, the historically black men’s school west of downtown Atlanta. The polling place on the campus had stayed open three extra hours Tuesday evening after reports emerged that numerous students who had registered to vote were not listed in the poll books.
At lunchtime on Wednesday, William Pounds, 19, of Macon, Ga., stood on the Morehouse campus with a group of fellow students who had all voted absentee. Mr. Pounds said that it was difficult not to consider that Mr. Kemp, who is white and bragged that he would round up “criminal illegals” in his campaign ads, might be acting to disenfranchise people of color.
“He could have done anything he wanted with those votes,” Mr. Pounds said.
The race — the most expensive for governor in state history — pitted Mr. Kemp’s hard-line conservative stances, particularly on immigration, against Ms. Abrams’s more liberal platform, which was built around ideas like Medicaid expansion. Almost throughout, opinion polls predicted a close race.
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 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, as 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.
As the votes were tabulated, it appeared that Ms. Abrams had come much closer to winning than other recent Democratic candidates — but perhaps not close enough.
Another statewide race, to succeed Mr. Kemp as secretary of state, was even closer than that for governor, and appeared headed for a runoff after neither major-party candidate secured a majority. The Republican candidate, Ben Raffensperger, had a lead of less than 1 percent on Wednesday over John Barrow, a moderate former member of Congress whose ads this season memorably declared, “Yeah, I’m a Democrat, but I won’t bite you.”