SANDY SPRINGS, Ga. — Just 45 minutes after polls closed Tuesday in Georgia’s 6th District, Keenan Pontoni knew Jon Ossoff was in trouble.
The Democratic candidate’s advantage in early voting didn’t look like it was going to be enough to make up for Republican turnout on Election Day.
But holed up in the campaign’s boiler room in the Westin Hotel, Pontoni, Ossoff’s 30-year-old campaign manager, still saw a path to victory, through outstanding mail-in votes.
In a downstairs ballroom, Ossoff’s supporters were drinking and dancing, occasionally booing when CNN’s Anderson Cooper announced vote percentages unfavorable to their candidate on two giant screens.
Pontoni’s father, who’d come down to Georgia for the election, was worried. Every time he texted his son to check in, he received a discouraging response: “Ugh.”
By 9 p.m., Pontoni knew it was over.
Shortly thereafter, his father got another text. “They want me in the boiler room,” he told Pontoni’s stepmother. The young campaign manager was giving the important people in his life a heads-up that Ossoff had lost, well before CNN called the race.
Last fall, Pontoni managed Democrat Gretchen Driskell’s campaign against Michigan GOP Rep. Tim Walberg. She lost by 15 points. Up until that point, Pontoni wasn’t used to losing. He’d previously managed a successful county commission and state House race in his native Michigan.
Despite back-to-back losses, Pontoni’s now a man in high demand, with a bright future in a party that desperately needs fresh perspectives.
“Maybe he should go from this to running a presidential campaign,” said Democratic pollster John Anzalone, who worked on the Ossoff campaign. “He has the mettle to really do any type of race.”
The blame game
Everyone’s heard of Ossoff, the 30-year-old first-time candidate who raised $24 million in the most expensive House race in the country, only to lose to perennial GOP candidate Karen Handel by 4 points.
Pontoni had little to do with the media spotlight and wants to keep it that way. But the Dexter, Michigan, native has ideas about how his party should be reaching out to voters, especially new voters — even if it didn’t result in a win this year.
He started out as a numbers guy. “When I was younger, I really loved the idea of trying to quantify social outcomes,” he said in an interview the Sunday before the election.
But over time, Pontoni, an economics major, has lost his devotion to data. As a math teacher in the Bronx with Teach for America, he didn’t like the way test scores dictated education policy. In the campaign world, he’s troubled by the prioritization of certain metrics.
“Most Democratic campaigns have got to a space where their reliance on efficiency and measurable voter contact strategies comes at the cost of many other unmeasurable effects,” he said.
The Ossoff campaign, Pontoni said, was different. It organized three or four house parties a day and targeted a large universe of potential supporters. Ossoff was at countless local gatherings and usually available to press afterwards. He took voters’ questions at tele-town halls.
“The organizing principle Keenan has been operating on is that if you scale up a campaign, it’s not just about money; it is about scaling up the face-to-face contact between the Ossoff volunteer and his or her neighbors,” said Michigan Rep. Dan Kildee, a member of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee leadership, who went to Georgia to campaign with Ossoff.
Tuesday’s results have sparked yet another round of party infighting, between the DCCC, which claimed Wednesday morning that “the House is in play,” and those who are concerned about what this loss — the fourth in special elections for Democrats this year — portends for 2018.
Pontoni rejects the postelection criticism from groups such as MoveOn.org, which endorsed Ossoff but has said he should have gone after Handel on President Donald Trump and health care more aggressively.
“When you run on national issues that are inherently partisan, because they are being litigated by the two parties nationally, you make the race more partisan, and folks tend to go in the corners of their parties,” Pontoni said.
Plenty of Democrats have come down hard on Ossoff for being too stiff and might not want to see him be the party’s nominee again in this district.
But Pontoni is fiercely loyal to the candidate. He said his own plans for 2018 will likely depend on what Ossoff decides to do. (“It’s not a conversation we’ve had yet,” Pontoni said Wednesday night when asked whether Ossoff wants to run again.)
Mostly, he’s disappointed by the finger-pointing that’s emerged in the past two days. “A really important mission that we had in this race was to prove that the party can work together and the apparatus can align,” he said, pointing to the support Ossoff had from both liberal and more traditional party groups.
A winnable race?
When Ossoff first called him for a job interview, Pontoni wasn’t prepared. There’d been a miscommunication about time zones.
“He woke me up. And I was not ready at all. I had no notes, I didn’t even have my laptop open,” Pontoni recalled.
“And he’s just grilling me with deep analytical questions like, ‘How much money do I have to raise? How many doors do I have to knock?’ All this stuff, like, ‘What do you think about investing in TV?’” he said.
By this point, Pontoni had powered up his laptop and was Googling gross ratings points in the Atlanta media market.
“I told him a lot on the call, ‘I don’t know, I’ll have to get back to you.’ But I guess the fact that I said ‘I don’t know’ a lot was one of the reasons he wanted to talk to me more,” Pontoni said. “He said a lot of campaign managers weren’t willing to admit that they didn’t know things.”
The Driskell loss last fall had shaken Pontoni’s confidence. He keeps a notebook during every race he runs of all the mistakes he makes, and he hadn’t even gone through it yet when he signed up to manage Ossoff’s campaign.
“I just instantly started having a lot of fun out there,” he said of his early days in Georgia, when he was working out of Ossoff’s parents’ basement.
The first time he thought about winning was a few weeks before the April 18 jungle primary. He happened to be driving when the campaign received a poll that showed Ossoff at more than 40 percent.
Pontoni pulled over and cried.
Getting into the game
Pontoni has a complicated relationship with his craft. “I love campaigns and hate politics,” he often tells people.
“I don’t even know where the battlegrounds are,” he said of his relative unfamiliarity with the 2018 map. And he has zero interest in working on Capitol Hill.
He didn’t vote in last year’s Democratic presidential primary because he couldn’t decide between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. (He later directed Jill Stein’s recount effort in Michigan because, he said, “I was willing to do anything I could to stop Trump from getting elected.”)
Pontoni originally wanted to be an academic, and he moves easily between chatting about voter-turnout modeling and the postcolonial scholar Edward Said.
But politics is somewhat of a family affair. Pontoni’s biggest mentors are his brother and sister-in-law, both political activists. Together, the three founded a training academy in Michigan for rising campaign managers for state House races.
Pontoni got started in the campaign business after his mother, who did constituent services for Michigan Democrat Mark Schauer, volunteered him for a softball fundraiser for the congressman. Pontoni hit it off with the campaign manager and ended up working on Schauer’s 2010 re-election.
Schauer lost that year, but for Pontoni it was just the beginning. Each time he said he was done with campaigns, he got pulled back.
His first job as a campaign manager was on a 2012 primary race for county commissioner for an old supervisor of his, Andy LaBarre.
“Here’s why KP is so special,” LaBarre said. “His ability to organize, motivate and coordinate people.” Multiple candidates he’s worked for praised his ability to keep them in line and on message.
LaBarre won, and Pontoni thought he was done with campaigns — until he heard about an underdog state House candidate who was in a top-targeted race against a GOP incumbent.
Pontoni managed Gretchen Driskell’s 2012 state House race, which she ended up winning by 6 points. She doesn’t think she would have won without Pontoni.
That race sealed Pontoni's fate in campaign work, and he finally gave up on academia.
After working for state Democrats for a while, Pontoni managed Driskell’s 2016 congressional race. (Kildee says it was one of the best-managed races he’d ever seen.)
Pontoni and Driskell are now close friends, with Driskell (and many of her former campaign team) having come down to Georgia for both the primary and the runoff.
A field guy
Pontoni is a field-first manager — he prioritizes field efforts — and he looks it.
His black shoes are heavily scuffed, and his everyday campaign uniform — dark jeans and a navy blazer over a dress shirt — make it hard to tell whether he’s gone home at night to sleep and change.
On Election Day in Georgia, Pontoni was up at 5 a.m. putting up yard signs. “I have to do that,” he told his father. “Because if I don’t, I can’t expect any of the people who work for me to do it.”
He cares intensely about his team. Volunteers’ pictures dot the walls of every field office, and on election night, Pontoni was out on the ballroom floor consoling his staff.
The Driskell loss had stung. But the day after the Georgia election, Pontoni said losing this race was the toughest because of the number of first-time political activists involved.
“What makes this so hard for me is the idea that any of those people will think that this was a failure,” he said.
It’s a campaign tradition for managers to give a speech on the eve of Election Day. On Monday night, Pontoni took the microphone. But after several tries, the soft-spoken manager couldn’t silence the crowd. It took another member of the Ossoff team, with a much deeper voice, to hush the room.
Pontoni closed his remarks by saying how cool it was that some volunteers bought a bus and others dressed up as dinosaurs.
Then he was supposed to introduce Ossoff. But the candidate was detained a few minutes. An awkward silence ensued.
As if on cue, the crowd began chanting, “Flip the Sixth!”
“Thank you,” Pontoni said quietly.