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National fervor over Trump swamps Georgia House race

ROSWELL, Ga. — The well-heeled suburbs north of Atlanta that make up Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District are a thousand miles from Boston.

And yet Kait Kurs, Stephanie Morrison, and about a dozen of their fellow architects from the Boston area have been spending their free time designing colorful, witty graphics that are winding up on T-shirts and fridge magnets in the nation’s hottest summer election battle.

The Boston designers and hundreds of other liberal volunteers across the country are trying to give President Trump a comeuppance by lending a hand in the Georgia special-election contest, helping a Democrat fight for the district’s House seat, which has been in conservative hands since Newt Gingrich won it nearly four decades ago.

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Money and volunteers are pouring into the district. Record-breaking sums and support are flowing from afar at such a high rate, in fact, that the campaigns of Democrat Jon Ossoff and Republican Karen Handel are accusing each other of receiving excessive outside help.

“It became a referendum about how our country was feeling about Trump’s presidency,” said Kurs, a cofounder of the Boston architects group, called Designing Democracy. Getting involved in the Georgia race, she said, “made reading the news bearable, to just be able to, like, take action.”

The object of her support is an improbable candidate who has caught a wave of anti-Trump fervor: Ossoff is a tall, skinny, 30-year-old political nobody who launched his bid with an appeal to “Make Trump Furious.” The former congressional aide-turned-documentary filmmaker doesn’t even live in the district, although he grew up there and now lives just outside its boundary.

The battleground is Atlanta’s northern suburbs of strip malls and subdivisions with names like Brookshyre Manor and Meadow Chase. Tom Price held the seat for 12 years, until he became Trump’s health secretary, presiding over the new administration’s efforts to gut the Affordable Care Act.

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Ossoff has smashed fund-raising records, raising an eye-popping $15 million in the past two months, most of it in small-dollar checks, close to 97 percent of it from outside of Georgia, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis.

The haul far outstrips that of his Republican opponent, who has raised $4.5 million — 78 percent from outside Georgia — since the April primary, and who got help from Trump and Vice President Mike Pence. The race is already the most expensive House contest in American history, with a few days to go before the June 20 special election.

In Washington, Wisconsin, California, and New York, activists new and old are organizing phone-bank events and small-dollar fund-raisers for Ossoff.

The out-of-state Ossoff fervor has itself become an issue in the race, with Republicans trying to use it against him and claiming his interests don’t align with those of the voters he wants to represent.

In the first debate, Handel, a former Georgia secretary of state, hit Ossoff for having more donors from outside Georgia than within. “They are not from this district, and certainly they don’t represent the values of this district,” she said.

Ossoff pushed back by pointing out that the small size of the checks he’s getting — the average donation is about $20, his campaign says —

and saying that more Georgians had donated to his campaign than to hers. Calling Handel a career politician — one of his favorite critiques — he claimed her campaign is being “bailed out by anonymous Washington super PACs, who are spending unprecedented amounts on attack ads here.”

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Both sides are getting millions in help from outside groups, though Handel is leaning harder on groups like the Conservative Leadership PAC, aligned with House Speaker Paul Ryan. This one super PAC, which has been running attack ads against Ossoff as well as sending out paid canvassers to knock on doors, plans to spend $7 million on the race by the time it’s over.

After suffering defeats in special House elections in Kansas and Montana, Democrats are looking at Georgia as their most realistic chance to win a major post-Trump electoral victory. They believe that winning would send a powerful message to both Republicans and their own base: that they can effectively oppose the president as they aim to win back the House in the 2018 midterm elections.

Trump barely beat Hillary Clinton here, scraping by with just over a one-point advantage, even as Price won with more than 60 percent of the vote. Polls show Ossoff and Handel are neck-and-neck.

The candidates’ first head-to-head debate, televised in prime time last week, shattered any pretense that this is anything other than a national proxy fight.

Handel painted Ossoff as a liberal tool of the House minority leader, Nancy Pelosi of California, a “fake” whose “values are nearly 3,000 miles away in San Francisco.”

Ossoff called Handel “the very definition of a rubber stamp” for Trump.

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National issues have gotten big play, even as both candidates have mostly tried to avoid using Trump’s name. Among the most prominent topics is the GOP effort to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. Handel has said she supports the bill passed by the House. Ossoff has slammed her for supporting legislation that would slash current protections for people with preexisting conditions.

Republican strategists privately acknowledge there’s a lot more grass-roots enthusiasm on the Democratic side of the Georgia race.

“Jon Ossoff is the vessel for people who are mad,” said one D.C.-based GOP strategist.

“I was a Democrat in hiding,” said Faith Arkel, who lives in Roswell, at a rooftop bar watch party for the first Ossoff-Handel debate. The gathering was organized by Pave It Blue, a local women’s group of fed-up liberals volunteering for Ossoff, with an ultimate goal of flipping other red districts. “The Trump election, it just brought us all out. . . . We can change things.”

Around her, Ossoff staffers squeezed through the crowd to sign people up for volunteer shifts. “If you do not sign up for a shift, there are no more margaritas for you tonight!” a Pave It Blue leader shouted.

As of May 31, Massachusetts donors had given $500,000 —

at least —

to Ossoff’s campaign since the start of the election, according to an analysis done for the Globe by ProPublica.

That puts the Bay State fourth in giving to the Democrat, behind California ($1.8 million), New York ($1.3 million), and Georgia ($1.1 million). The figures don’t include donations of $200 or less, for which campaigns aren’t required to reveal donor details — and that make up more than half of Ossoff’s election haul.

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Among those helping: Massachusetts Representative Joe Kennedy III headlined a fund-raiser in Newton for Ossoff in April that netted about $15,000. Kennedy also donated $1,000 from his political action committee to Ossoff.

Massachusetts ranks 15th in states giving to Handel, according to the ProPublica analysis. The Republican received at least $26,700 from Massachusetts, again a figure that doesn’t include small-dollar donations.

One group in Washington’s Maryland suburbs has marshaled skills honed in the last several presidential cycles to organize more than 500 volunteers and churn out close to 20,000 phone calls to voters in the Georgia district, plus thousands more calls to recruit volunteer canvassers to travel down to the Sixth District for the final days of get-out-the-vote efforts.

“I’ve never seen it like this. Usually this time after a presidential cycle is the sleepiest,” said Jon Heintz, a cofounder of the Maryland group, called J Walkers Action Group.

Others are traveling to the district to participate. Their efforts are, in many cases, organized by groups like Indivisible New York, which is sending 15 members for the final weekend before the election, with transportation and lodging assistance from the Ossoff campaign.

“That election got me off the couch. I was like, I’ve got to do something,” said Tina McLane, who drove to Atlanta from her home south of Nashville with her 18-year-old daughter, Maggie, to spend a day canvassing for Ossoff. Among other things, McLane wanted to learn the ropes of canvassing “so we can take that back home with us,” she said.


Victoria McGrane can be reached at victoria.mcgrane@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @vgmac.