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What's next in the race for Georgia governor
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Stacey Abrams, the Democratic candidate for Georgia governor, speaks to a crowd of supporters on Friday, Oct. 26, 2018, as part of her "We Are Georgia" bus tour with other party candidates. - photo by Brian Paglia

ATLANTA — Democrats and Republicans nationwide had their eyes trained on Georgia to see whether the emerging battleground state, would elect the first black woman governor in American history or double down on the Deep South's GOP tendencies with an acolyte of President Donald Trump.

But they'll have to wait a little longer.

Here's a look at what's happening in the contest, why Republican Brian Kemp and Democrat Stacey Abrams agree it's not over and what it means in Georgia and beyond.

Kemp leads and absentees loom

With almost 3.9 million votes counted, Kemp stood at 50.5 percent, enough for an outright victory under a quirky Georgia law requiring a majority to win a general election without a runoff. But Abrams and Kemp agree there are absentee, mail-in and provisional ballots left to be counted.

The rivals differ on how much that will matter.

Says Kemp, Georgia's secretary of state: "There are votes left to count, but ... make no mistake, the math is on our side to win this election."

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Republican gubernatorial candidate and Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp greets a young patron at the Cumming Country Fair & Festival on Friday, Oct. 12, 2018. - photo by Brian Paglia

Abrams says the number of pending ballots is enough to push Kemp's total below the 50 percent threshold, because a Libertarian candidate is taking about 1 percent of the vote.

"I promise you ... we're going to make sure that every vote is counted," Abrams said.

The Abrams campaign estimated Wednesday morning that she needs a net gain of about 15,000 votes to force a Dec. 4 runoff.

Campaign manager Lauren Groh-Wargo said there are at least that many outstanding mail-in and absentee ballots.

The wild card is how many provisional ballots were cast and ultimately will be counted. Local officials around the state haven't reported those numbers.

Neither the Kemp campaign nor Kemp's secretary of state office has offered detailed data, deferring instead to local authorities.

Why this race is important

Abrams' historic candidacy made this a race to watch from the start. She's already the first black woman in U.S. history to be a major party's gubernatorial nominee. In Georgia, one of the original 13 states, she'd be the first woman, and the first nonwhite governor.

Beyond breaking barriers, the matchup exhibits the nation's bitter partisan, ideological divides and underscores the cultural and racial fissures still lingering in the Deep South.

Abrams is a 44-year-old lawyer, former state legislative leader and moonlighting romance novelist who campaigns as an unabashed liberal. She promises to expand Medicaid insurance coverage and prioritize spending on public education, while endorsing tighter gun regulations and criticizing President Donald Trump's hard line on immigration.

Kemp is a 55-year-old two-term secretary of state who's echoed Trump's immigration rhetoric. He's flaunted his guns, chainsaw and pickup truck in his campaign ads. He promises to "put Georgians first," blasts "fake news" and lambastes Abrams as a tool of "socialists" and "liberal billionaires" who "want to turn Georgia into California."

Both nominees framed the race as a "battle for the soul" of the state — a characterization supported by Georgians voting in numbers nearing their turnout for the 2016 presidential election.

The stakes are high enough that Trump and former President Barack Obama made opposing visits within 48 hours on the final weekend. Oprah Winfrey, the media icon who typically sits out politics, came to campaign for Abrams.

All this plays out in a Georgia on the cusp of becoming a true battleground state ahead of the 2020 presidential campaign. As governor, Kemp would be Trump's biggest cheerleader in a state the president won by 5 percentage points in 2016. Abrams would be among the most coveted endorsers in what's likely to be a crowded Democratic field of aspiring presidents.

What happens next

The counting was to continue Wednesday and perhaps beyond. In a race already fraught with racial innuendos surrounding the ballot access and voting system that Kemp runs, that process will likely be neither calm, nor quiet.

Abrams has called Kemp "an architect of voter suppression" for the way he's managed voter registration rules and elections. In outlining the possibilities of a runoff, the campaign attributed an apparent rise in provisional and paper ballots to a shortage of reliable voting machines, and blamed Kemp for the lack of preparation.

Kemp has insisted he's done his job, and argued that Abrams wants to help noncitizens vote illegally. He cited a speech in which she listed "undocumented" people as being part of her coalition.

But Kemp also had to admit within days of Tuesday's voting that the online voter registration system he oversees was vulnerable to hackers. When a whistleblower alerted a voting rights lawyer who alerted the FBI and Kemp's office of an apparent weakness, Kemp accused the Georgia Democratic Party, without offering evidence, of trying to tamper with the system.

Given that environment, it's not unreasonable to wonder whether Kemp supporters would accept the legitimacy of a runoff or whether Abrams' supporters would accept an outright Kemp victory.