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Bishop wins after night of uncertainty

U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Albany

U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Albany

ALBANY, Ga. -- The question hit U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop like a sledgehammer.

"No, I'm not thinking at all about conceding this race," he said sharply, stepping away momentarily from the crowd gathered around a computer screen giving updates on his race with Republican challenger Mike Keown. "There are 17,000 early votes in Muscogee County that haven't been counted, and there are four precincts there that haven't reported."

It's shortly after 11 p.m. on election night, and The Associated Press has just projected Keown, a state representative from Coolidge, as the winner in his quest to take over the U.S. House District 2 seat Bishop has held for the past 18 years. The meeting room at the Albany Civic Center, reserved for a Bishop victory party, is a somber place.

But a core group of Bishop's supporters is not buying into the gloom and doom around them.

"This thing ain't over 'til the fat lady sings," campaign volunteer Elaine Gillispie loudly proclaims.

A short while later, at 11:45 p.m., Gillispie isn't the only one in the room who's excited. Word quickly spreads new numbers have just been posted. As a murmur builds in the room, a new projection pops up on a television monitor: Bishop now leads Keown by 157 votes.

Amid the shouting that ensues, the crowd of some 75 true believers who had been scattered about the room in small groups of three or four rushes together and breaks into spontaneous song: "I don't believe He brought me this far ..." the group shouts with the fervor of a church choir.

The worry lines that had creased Bishop's brow for the better part of the night slip away, and he breaks into a broad grin as media representatives move in.

"I've been in Muscogee County today, and I felt confident we'd get the votes there," Bishop says. "I expected to do well in Muscogee County and in Dougherty County, my home county. I also expected (Keown) to do well in some of the other counties (in the district), and he did."

ONCE IN A LIFETIME

Asked to consider the improbable turnaround, the usually unflappable Bishop is at a momentary loss.

"This is probably a once-in-a-lifetime experience in politics, to be involved in something like this," he says. "But this is a unique and unusual election season. And I maintained my belief that all things are possible if you persevere.

"I just remained committed to my faith and believed, like these people were singing earlier, that God didn't put me here to leave me."

The excitement of the moment gradually dies out, and the uncertainty returns for some when a new set of numbers shows Keown with a slight lead. An impromptu news conference ensues as media deadlines start closing in.

"I wonder how the AP can call an election with so many votes out?"

Bishop marvels in response to a question. "There were some 20,000 to 30,000 votes outstanding and he had only about a 5,000-vote lead when they made that projection."

The questions continue ... Did (presumed rising House Speaker) John Boehner's promise to hand Keown a seat on the House Agriculture Committee cut into the support of one of his base groups, Southwest Georgia farmers?

"I have no idea," Bishop says. "I've had substantial support from farmers in this region, and they've stuck with me because I've stood 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 I kept theirs and so many others' loyalty, I believe this race ultimately will be won."

Was he uncertain about the outcome when the projection went out for Keown?

"It's pretty hard not to entertain that possibility when the AP wants to prematurely call the race with all those votes out there," he says. "I'm not a statistician, but I can do a little bit of math."

Is this election a message to the Obama administration and to elected officials who have supported him?

"I'm sure a lot of people will be doing some reflection in the coming days," Bishop says. "There will be analysis as everyone looks for a true meaning of this election. But I'm hopeful we'll be able to work across the aisles on the issues that are important to all Americans.

"Unfortunately, I don't believe a lot of people are looking objectively at what President Obama and his administration have accomplished in a short amount of time. A lot of important things have taken place, and we've moved forward significantly from where we were 22 months ago."

TWO MORE YEARS

As the news media pack away their gear and call it a night and some of his supporters who figure they've had their fill of history decide to head home, Bishop and a group of what he calls "die-hards" settle back into wait-and-see mode. There's some line dancing by a few of the more energetic, and new subgroups form and disperse.

Most of the attention is again centered on the computer terminal.

At 1:15 a.m., with a new buzz starting to build in the room, Bishop strides purposefully to a podium in the mostly empty meeting room. He asks for attention.

"Let me just say thank you to all you die-hards who've stayed to the bitter end," he starts, and a roar goes up. "I want to give glory to God first for victory and thank you again for your support. Because of your work, you not only made A difference, you made THE difference.

"I have some new numbers to announce: Bishop, 84,474; Keown, 79,619. (Bedlam.) Bishop, 51.5 percent; Keown, 48.5 percent. (More bedlam.) That's a nice, nice margin, and it could increase a little bit before we're through. I just want to say thank you, thank you, thank you."

Bishop calls Albany Mayor Willie Adams and Zion Hope Baptist Church pastor the Rev. Ezekiel M. Holley to his side. He tells the small crowd of being anointed with oil and with the laying on of hands at a Sunday church service, and he calls up and praises his wife Vivian for her help in "delivering Muscogee County while I was out running all over the other counties."

Then he offers a final thank you.

"We go into tomorrow now looking forward to serving another two years," Bishop said. "And you people made the difference."

Holley closes the meeting with an impassioned prayer, during which he offers thanks to God: "You turned our sadness into joy," he says.