Democratic Rep. John Delaney's lead in Maryland's 6th Congressional District grew slightly on Thursday after the first day of absentee ballot counting -- an outcome that prompted the Associated Press to declare him the winner of the unexpectedly close contest.
The first-term incumbent was leading Republican Dan Bongino by more than 2,200 votes after absentee ballots were counted in Montgomery, Frederick, Allegany and Garrett counties. The one outstanding county, Washington, is expected to report the result of its absentee count on Friday.
Bongino has not conceded the race and a campaign spokeswoman could not be reached to offer reaction to the AP call.
Bongino said in a statement earlier this week that he feels "it is only appropriate to allow every vote to be counted."
Washington County voted overwhelmingly for Bongino on Election Day and those results, when they arrive Friday, are all but certain to narrow the lead. But even if Bongino won every outstanding absentee ballot in the county he would still be several hundred votes shy of victory.
Counties must still tally up provisional ballots -- filed by voters who could not be found in the registration rolls on Election Day -- and officials will conduct a second round of absentee counts for ballots that arrived just before the deadline.
Still, the path toward a Bongino win appeared to narrow substantially early Friday.
Delaney declared victory on Wednesday.
Independent analysts had predicted Delaney would win re-election -- and few saw the contest as particularly competitive.
But there were late signs that the race was tightening. Delaney, a former banker from Potomac, wrote himself an $800,000 check in the final days of campaigning and was airing a negative television ad that portrayed Bongino as too conservative for the district.
Bongino developed a national following with appearances on conservative media. He raised $1.2 million in campaign cash and aired television ads criticizing Delaney as unfriendly to business.
Delaney unseated 20-year incumbent Republican Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett in 2012. The 20-point victory in that race came after Democrats in Annapolis redrew the district to favor their party.
The 6th District includes Western Maryland and parts of Frederick and Montgomery counties.