Lee Terry was clinging to his political life early Wednesday as his congressional battle with Democrat Brad Ashford turned cliffhanger.

Ashford held a narrow lead, as he had throughout the night, and it appeared that the trending math favored the challenger.

But the vote count in Douglas County was slow in coming in, and election officials said thousands of mail-in ballots that had arrived in the election office in recent days remained to be counted.

That means it could be days before voters know the outcome of what has been among the hardest-fought and tightly contested House races in the country. Terry even raised the possibility that it could take weeks.

Terry, a survivor of previous close election battles, was not ready to concede that he had lost his bid for a ninth term when he walked to the microphone just before midnight.

The Republican told his supporters that they might as well go home for the night. He had said earlier he thought he was narrowing the gap after a surge of mail-in ballots had given Ashford the lead, and he continued to believe he could overtake Ashford.

“This is just so bizarre and so odd that we can’t figure out what the heck is going on,” Terry said. “I’m very frustrated, if not angry.”

Ashford walked to the Ramada stage at 1:42 a.m. Wednesday to the cheers of about 70 remaining campaign staffers and supporters, who covered less than half the ballroom dance floor.

"Thank you, everyone,'' he said. "I've never had an experience like this. We're winning this thing.''

Ashford stopped just short of declaring victory.

"We're winning this race," he said. "We have a 3,000-vote lead. We do not believe that Mr. Terry can win this race."

While there are still absentee ballots to count, "it's all going to be fine,'' he said.

Ashford said he believes his lead will grow when the remaining early ballots are counted.

"Pretty soon we'll go back to Washington. We'll find 25 friends and we'll change Congress,'' he said.

Then he hugged his wife, Ann.

"There are still absentee ballots to be counted but it's our belief that the race is almost over."

Kurt Gonska, Ashford's campaign manager, said Terry would have to take a large share of the outstanding ballots to win, which he called an unlikely scenario.

But Terry’s camp expressed hope that those early ballots could close the gap for him.

Earlier in the campaign, Democrats held the lead over Republicans in early ballot requests. But toward the end of the campaign, more Republicans requested early ballots.

Kent Grisham, Terry’s campaign manager, said there is reason to believe the early ballots delivered to Phipps’ office in the final days of the campaign will trend Republican.

 “Those 15,000 are the ones who came in late to the game,” said Grisham.

By 3:45 a.m. Wednesday, Ashford held a lead of some 4,100 votes.

An additional 15,000 mail-in ballots that arrived in the election office Monday and Tuesday remained unopened and uncounted. They won’t be counted until Friday at the earliest, said Dave Phipps, the Douglas County election commissioner.

Phipps said he did not know the partisan makeup of the 15,000 early ballots that are out.

Assuming 15,000 votes, Terry would have to win about 60% of them to close the gap. But in the most recent batch of votes counted early Wednesday, he only got 42%.

The tight race didn't surprise political observers such as Randall Adkins, a political science professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

“We came into this knowing it was going to be close," Adkins said. "It’s a reflection on how divided the district is between Democrats and Republicans.”

Overall, Adkins said, the close race was a reflection of how effective both campaigns had been. Ashford and Democrats hammered Terry for foot-in-mouth comments he made after the partial government shutdown, while Republicans painted Ashford as soft on crime.

Phipps said the mail-in ballots cannot be processed more quickly because it’s a labor intensive process to open them and verify the signatures before the count.

“We’re going to do it at the pace we have to do it,’’ he said.

Neither campaign seemed happy with the turn of events.

Terry at one point went to the podium with misinformation that the count would be halted for the night. He said he had not been able to reach election officials to verify it. He raised the prospect that the security of the ballots could be in jeopardy.

“We don’t know how secure these ballots are, what can happen to those from west Omaha that haven’t been counted yet that we were relying on to overcome the gap,” Terry said. “So I have a feeling that this election may last days or weeks now because of our Douglas County Commissioner’s Office.”

He thanked supporters for hanging around while he and the campaign team were upstairs chewing their nails.

“This is as bizarre an electoral situation as I have seen in the state of Nebraska in my lifetime,” he said.

Campaign aides then shut down what was becoming more of a press conference. Supporters chanted “We want Lee!” over and over again as Terry left the party.

When Terry appeared on televisions at Ashford’s election night gathering, Democrats called out for him to concede.

But even Ashford’s campaign was not ready to claim victory and was waiting for all the ballots other than the mail-in ballots to be counted, his campaign manager said about 1 a.m. today. “We’re kind of in a holding pattern,’’ Kurt Gonska said.

Ashford had surged to the lead early in the evening behind a wave of mail-in ballots. Large numbers of early ballots were cast because organizers of the minimum wage ballot initiative had launched a major push for such ballots, particularly targeting Democratic voters who do not always show up in elections. Ashford got many of those votes.

Terry remained optimistic he could chip away at the margin as the night went on.

“But every new count, we’re inching forward and inching forward, and if things keep on our pace there will be a line that crosses,” Terry said.

Terry’s campaign manager, Kent Grisham, was optimistic that some of the late Election Day vote being counted early Wednesday was from strong Republican precincts, including some where lines were out the door.

“So we need to make sure all those are counted, and we need to make sure the whole process has been clean,” Grisham said.

Terry always figured he would face a tough race in 2014. The 52-year-old incumbent faced perceptions that after 16 years in Congress, he hadn’t accomplished much. He had barely squeaked to re-election in 2012 with just 51 percent of the vote.

But the barriers to re-election became even higher a year ago, thanks to some self-inflicted wounds.

In October 2013, Terry backed the GOP House strategy that led to the government shutdown, insisting that funding the government must be contingent on the president agreeing to defund his health care law.

Then Terry, along with the rest of the Nebraska delegation, was asked by a reporter whether he would continue to take his paycheck during the shutdown. “Dang straight,’’ he said. He had “a nice house’’ and a kid in college.

Terry apologized profusely days later, but his words became a political sensation, making Terry a national poster child for the government stoppage. For most Republicans across the country, the government shutdown long ago ceased to be a political issue. But not for Terry.

The 2nd District, which is made up of Douglas County and western Sarpy County, became one of only a handful of truly competitive House races in the country, with Terry among the most endangered of Republicans.

His tenuous grip on his office showed during the GOP primary in May, when he spent $1 million and still won only 53 percent of the vote against a little-known challenger.

Terry then faced a formidable opponent in the 64-year-old Ashford, an Omaha state senator with a record of success working within the nonpartisan Nebraska Legislature. Ashford campaigned on a pledge to work across party lines to break the partisan gridlock that has prevented action on any of the nation’s most pressing issues.

The political arms of the Republican and Democratic House leadership both came in with $1 million in ads. Ashford and the House Democrats hammered Terry for the shutdown and his comments.

Terry appeared to flip the momentum, however. During an early October press conference, he blasted Ashford as soft on crime. He questioned why, after violent inmate Nikko Jenkins was released from prison and killed four people, Ashford did not move to change the good time law that automatically credits prisoners with time off for good behavior, shortening their sentences.

Soon, Republicans in Washington went up with their Jenkins ad. No longer was Terry’s paycheck the sole focus of the campaign. For the rest of the race, both camps ran hard-­hitting ads seeking to keep their narrative pre-eminent with voters.

Republicans also closed with a message of unity, suggesting a vote for Ashford would forward the aims of President Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic leader.

World-Herald staff writers Robynn Tysver, Christopher Burbach and David Hendee contributed to this report.

Contact the writer: 402-444-1130, henry.cordes@owh.com

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