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Ground Game

Get smart quick on the Georgia special election

Campaign signs for Karen Handel, the Republican candidate, and Jon Ossoff, the Democrat.

Audra Melton/The New York Times

Campaign signs for Karen Handel, the Republican candidate, and Jon Ossoff, the Democrat.

Amid the crush of news in the last month you’d be forgiven if the special election for a US House of Representatives seat in Georgia snuck up on before you got up to speed on why it is such a big deal.

But as voters in the northern suburbs of Atlanta head to the polls on Tuesday, there will be nonstop news coverage analyzing what could happen and what it all means. Polls show the race between Democrat Jon Ossoff and Republican Karen Handel is statistically tied. Don’t know much about this race or why it matters? We’ve got you covered.

Q: Why should anyone care about a US House race in Georgia?

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A: The simple reason: the race really has nothing to do with Georgia. It’s both the first real political test of Donald Trump’s presidency and -- some believe -- a test of whether Democrats have a shot at winning back the US House next year. If that seems like a boring thing to pay attention to, then maybe this will help: Should Democrats win a majority in the House next year, then impeaching Trump is suddenly a tangible thing to seriously discuss.

Q: What is the connection between this seat and the US House majority? Isn’t it just one seat?

A: It is just one seat, but it’s representative of something bigger. To grab the majority next year Democrats need to pick up 24 seats. Considering that there are 23 Republican US Representatives in districts that also voted for Hillary Clinton, that’s a real possibility. By contrast, this particular Georgia district voted for both a Republican Congressman and Trump. (That Republican Congressman, Tom Price, later became a member of Trump’s cabinet and resigned his seat.) If Democrats win in Georgia tomorrow, it may signal that they have a good chance of winning in other districts that have a more favorable voting record for their party. But if Republicans hold on and win in a district they have held since the Carter administration, it might signal that the Democratic resistance to Trump isn’t as strong as the hype.

Q: Can one election really say anything about what will happen in 435 House elections 18 months from now?

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A:The results in Georgia tomorrow may not predict what happens in November 2018, but it will certainly impact what happens. Consider what will happen if Democrats win the seat. We are in a phase where incumbents are figuring out whether they should run for reelection and parties are determining which potential candidates they can recruit to challenge incumbents. Should Democrats win in Georgia, they will have an easier time recruiting high-caliber candidates in other key districts around the country. The response from Republicans would be two-fold: Some may decide not to run again and those who do run may find they need to distance themselves from Trump.

Q: Which party needs the win more?

A: Both parties really need to win. With so few contests to serve as a barometer of the national political climate, this will be the race that pundits and politicos will be discussing and analyzing from now until the November elections when New Jersey and Virginia elect new governors.

Q: But what about the Georgia candidates themselves?

A: Oh, them. Well, first off it should be said that both candidates have their flaws. The Republican, Karen Handel, once was Georgia’s secretary of state and a rising star until she suffered several high-profile losses, including a poor showing in a US Senate Republican primary. If she loses this race, it will likely be her last, meaning she won’t represent the future of the GOP, but its past. Ossoff, the Democrat, is just 30 years old and doesn’t even live in the district (yes, this is legal).

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But both may have exactly what they need to win in this political moment. In previous special elections where Democrats were seen to have little chance of victory, their candidates were pretty liberal. Ossoff is that perfect combination for a Georgia seat like this -- moderate on policy, but nonetheless, has the backing of a fired-up liberal grassroots. Handel, on the other hand, hasn’t fully embraced Trump, but she hasn’t fully rejected him, either.

Q: Have there been odd developments in the last minute of campaigning, as there sometimes are?

A: The shooting of a Congressman and four others last week in Virginia has found its way into the final hours of this race. An independent group backing Republican Handel is running an ad on Fox News Channel in Georgia saying “When will it stop? It won’t if Jon Ossoff wins on Tuesday, because the same unhinged leftists cheering last week’s shooting are all backing Jon Ossoff. And if he wins, they win.” Both campaigns have denounced the ad. They also have discussed unrelated threats against them personally in the last few days. Handel, in particular, received letters with a white, powdery substance.

Q: Any other fun facts about this contest?

A: Yes. It is the most expensive US House race in American history. The candidates and outside groups have spent a combined $51 million on the contest. This shattered the previous record for a Florida House seat in 2012 where $29 million was spent over the course of two years.

James Pindell can be reached at james.pindell@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell or subscribe to his Ground Game newsletter on politics:http://pages.email.bostonglobe.com/GroundGameSignUp
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