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Bishop declares victory, latest vote tally at 51 percent (Updated 1:40 a.m.)

Photo by Casey Dixon

Photo by Casey Dixon

ALBANY, Ga. -- U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop has declared victory over Republican challenger Mike Keown in what Bishop called a once-in-a-lifetime political experience.

At 1:15 a.m. this morning, Bishop declared victory before a handful of diehard supporters at the Albany Civic Center where he had earlier held a victory party.

"Let me just thank you, all you diehards, thank you for staying until the bitter end," Bishop said. "I want to say glory to God for this victory tonight. Because of your hard work, you not only made a difference, you made the difference."

According to numbers obtained from the Georgia secretary of state's website at 1:20 a.m., Bishop had 84,474 votes to Keown's 79,619-- a 51.5 percent to 48.5 percent edge, with 3,000 votes to be counted, largely from Muscogee County.

As votes from Dougherty and Muscogee County came in late Tuesday evening and early this morning, GOP candidate Mike Keown saw his 20 point lead over U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop evaporate, with Bishop pulling into the lead around midnight and Keown reclaiming a slim advantage a few minutes later.

As the one o'clock hour passed, Bishop was back in the lead by 3 percent.

"We ran a good race," Keown told supporters at his headquarters at the Hilton Garden Inn in downtown Albany. "It's going to be a while. Go to the house.

"We want to make sure the numbers are right, because it's just that close. We may know something tonight or maybe in the morning, but some things have happened in Dougherty County."

The Associated Press had declared Keown the winner in the race around 11 p.m., but Bishop did not concede and Keown didn't declare victory.

At 1:10 a.m., the vote count was 85,038 for Bishop to 80,270 for Keown, according to the Georgia Secretary of State's website. The website said 95 percent of precincts had reported.

"I'll have to admit I was worried there for a bit, but then I wonder how the AP can call an election with so many votes out and only 5,000 votes separating the candidates," Bishop said early this morning. "There were 20 to 30,000 votes still uncounted when they called the race.

"I don't know how many farmers may have decided to vote (for Keown), but I know a lot of them stuck by me just like I stuck by them. I believe most farmers are, by nature, thoughtful people, and because of that I'm sure many of them remained loyal. And because they and my other supporters remained loyal, I believe we will ultimately win this race."

In fact, more than an hour after the nation's largest news agency made its call on the race, Bishop was up 157 votes. Twenty minutes later, Keown was back ahead.

But Keown's prospects for an upset win were looking grimmer as Muscogee County, traditionally a Bishop stronghold, hadn't yet reported all of its votes. At 1:10 a.m., Muscogee pushed Bishop into his strongest lead. With 76 percent of its precincts reporting, 18,486 of the county's 22,918 votes had gone Bishop's way.

"This is probably a once-in-a-lifetime experience in politics," Bishop said as the vote count see-sawed. "But this is a unique and unusual election season. And I maintained my belief that all things are possible in politics if you persevere. I just remained committed to my faith and believed, like these folks were singing earlier, that God didn't put me here to leave me."

Keown campaign officials in Albany shortly after midnight this morning were hinting that a recount may be demanded. There also may be questions of integrity of the system after at least one key card was reportedly left unattended at a voting precinct and election officials had to go back and retrieve it.

Bishop was clearly pleased that he was performing well in Dougherty County. Keown knew failing to make inroads in Dougherty would be a problem in his bid.

When he arrived at his Albany Civic Center campaign headquarters -- across Oglethorpe Boulevard from Keown's HQ -- Bishop was in good spirits despite Keown's lead at the time.

"I feel great," he said. "We had a good day yesterday (Monday) and we are expecting to have a good night tonight. But I also expect it may be a long night.

"I have great confidence in the wisdom of the voters of the Second District. And I am sure this will be a sweet night. We had a good rally in Muscogee County yesterday (Monday). There are a lot of numbers in Muscogee and the turnout is reported to be high, which is unusual, particularly in a non-presidential year. Right now I am very, very encouraged."

Several Dougherty precincts had people waiting in line when the polls closed at 7 p.m. One precinct reportedly had more 50 people waiting to cast ballots. Reporting of results was also delayed after one of the precinct cards was left at the precinct and elections officials had to return to the polling place to retrieve it. Keown campaign expressed concerned over the vote card that apparently was left unattended.

The District 2 seat had been seen as one of the safest in Congress for Democrats, but there was restlessness in the district.

Metro editor Carlton Fletcher and government reporter J.D. Sumner contributed to this report.