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Was Paladino's primary loss a rejection of extremism? Analysts aren't so sure

Carl Paladino speaks at a rally for then-candidate Donald Trump at Buffalo's Key Bank Center April 18, 2016.
Eileen Koteras Elibol
Buffalo Toronto Public Media
Carl Paladino speaks at a rally for then-candidate Donald Trump at Buffalo's Key Bank Center April 18, 2016.

Carl Paladino entered the Republican primary for New York’s 23rd Congressional District with a history of extreme statements, and the Buffalo real estate developer lived up to that reputation once the race started.

His campaign was marred by headlines about a 2021 WBEN interviewin which he praised Adolf Hitler’s leadership, the sharing of a Facebook post associating the May 14 racist mass shooting at Tops with false flag operations, and a Breitbart radio show appearance in which he said U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland should be executed for raiding Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate.

Paladino has said he should have invoked Winston Churchill instead, that he only “scanned” the conspiratorial Facebook post before sharing, and that his comments about Garland were “facetious.”

Following Paladino’s primary night defeat last week, New York State GOP Chair Nick Langworthy, said voters chose his style over Paladino’s.

“I'm not running for Congress to go say outlandish things on cable news,” he told WBFO from his Clarence headquarters. “I'm there to be a serious legislator.”

Yet an outlandish, cable-news-friendly and perhaps extremist style, in theory, should have worked. Afterall, Trump won the heavily Republican 23rd District by double-digits in both 2016 and 2020.

So political analysts and insiders aren’t convinced Paladino’s defeat can be considered an outright rejection of extremism.

They point to the fact the race was relatively close, under five percentage points, and that Paladino won the Erie County portion of the district by a two-to-one margin. In addition, Langworthy earned endorsements from county-level GOP committees and campaigned harder in the district’s more rural Southern Tier.

“Obviously, the rhetoric carried with [Paladino]. The reports and the advertising that came in did label that and brand that pretty successfully, so I think that people reacted to that,” said Tom Reed, a Republican who represented the 23rd District for nearly a decade before resigning earlier this year. “But if I had to put an assessment on it, I would say that the campaign decision of disengagement is really what cost him the election.”

Results had more to do with ‘insider politics’

Paladino and Langworthy were once allies. They both pushed for Trump to run against then-New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in 2014 before Trump ultimately set his sights on the White House.

Paladino ran for New York governor himself in 2010, held a seat on the Buffalo Board of Education, and remains influential in Western New York politics as chairman of Ellicott Development, but the 76-year-old and his allies have tried to paint him as a “conservative outsider.”

If Paladino is an outsider, Langworthy could certainly be considered an insider.

The 41-year-old Jamestown native was a staffer to former Congressman Tom Reynolds in the mid-2000s before going on to chair the Erie County Republican Committee and eventually the state-wide committee.

And that experience and connections seemed to serve Langworthy well in the primary race. Langworthy secured endorsements from county-level GOP chairs, and then used that apparatus to get out the vote.

A "Carl Country" sign for Carl Paladino sits outside the Aurora Town Hall polling place Aug. 23, 2022.
Dave Debo
A "Carl Country" sign for Carl Paladino sits outside the Aurora Town Hall polling place Aug. 23, 2022.

“This is a win for insider politics,” said University at Buffalo associate professor of political science Jacob Neiheisel.

On the other hand, Paladino did not campaign aggressively there.

“They, like so many others, thought that, because the Southern Tier was so friendly to Trump, that a similarly-styled candidate would have just a cakewalk there,” Neiheisel said. “So I don't know if this is a mistake [by Paladino], or this was just a real win for insider politics.”

And motivating voters through county-level party action is crucial in a low-turnout race like last week’s GOP primary, which saw just 24% of enrolled Republicans vote, said Buffalo State College associate professor of political science Dr. Peter Yacobucci.

“Nick Langworthy spent most of his time down in the Southern Tier campaigning, meeting people, going to events, going to fundraisers and dinners,” he said. “Carl didn't and that probably cost Carl the election.”

Reed, the former congressman, said it’s possible some of his former constituents were turned off by Paladino’s refusal to debate Langworthy.

“People in the Southern Tier, in particular, want to see that you're going to show up, that you're willing to stand up in front of the crowd, so to speak, and take the hot questions and handle them appropriately,” he said. “So I think that caused a lot of push back from folks in the district.”

Erie County embraced Paladino

Erin Heaney is executive director of Standing Up for Racial Justice, a national organization with a Buffalo chapter that mobilizes white people against racism.

Heaney was part of a broad coalition that successfully fought to get Paladino removed from the Buffalo school board in 2017, following racist comments in which he compared then-First Lady Michelle Obama to a gorilla.

So, for Heaney, watching Paladino get out to an early lead on primary night thanks in large part to the Buffalo suburbs of Erie County was “extremely disappointing.” Paladino’s nearly 32-point win in Erie County was then evaporated via Langworthy winning all six of the district’s Southern Tier counties.

“I think there can be a tendency to blame or look down on rural communities as a place where the most racism exists. It's just not true,” Heaney said.

Heaney said the fact Erie County leans Democrat doesn’t mean it doesn’t have problems with racism. She noted the county consistently elects Republican sheriffs “running on divide and conquer and law and order” despite registered Democrats outnumbering registered Republicans by over 130,000.

“We like to think of ourselves as a progressive region, but what we've seen time and time again is that racism and white supremacy are alive and well in Erie County,” Heaney said. “And I think Carl's success here is an indication of that.

“So I think those of us in Erie County have some real reckoning to do around racism in this county and a lot of work ahead of us.”

Paladino and Langworthy don’t differ much on policy 

In an early July campaign ad, Langworthy appears in a park-like setting and acknowledges the approaching Independence Day weekend.

“But our freedoms just got trampled on by Kathy Hochul and her radical, leftist pawns in the New York State Legislature,” he says, noting the state’s recently passed gun control legislation. “I'm sick and tired of Democrats running roughshod over our Constitution and going after upstanding citizens, while letting violent thugs wreak havoc on our streets.”

To Heaney, Langworthy is not that much better of an option than Paladino. The two have nearly identical policy positions and both strongly support Trump.

Heaney also noted that Langworthy, as GOP chair, supported Congressman Chris Jacobs, who went on to vote against certifying the 2020 presidential election results, and Erie County Clerk Mickey Kearns, a registered Democrat who has opposed the state’s Green Light Law that gives driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants.

“So I'm not resting easy knowing that Langworthy is going to Congress,” Heaney said, “and I think we still have a lot of work to do in this community to undermine racism and to create a different set of conditions under which people are running for office.”

New York State Republican Party Chairman Nick Langworthy calls for the repeal of New York state's bail reform law Dec. 17, 2021, outside the Erie County Sheriff's Office in downtown Buffalo.
Tom Dinki
New York State Republican Party Chairman Nick Langworthy calls for the repeal of New York state's bail reform law Dec. 17, 2021, outside the Erie County Sheriff's Office in downtown Buffalo.

But to Reed, there is a major difference in how Paladino and Langworthy get their message across.

“Clearly, Nick has the capability to restrain his rhetoric and deliver it more appropriately to the moment,” he said.

And although he thinks Paladino’s lack of campaigning was more of a factor, Reed does think voters to a degree showed they don’t embrace Paladino’s style of politics.

“They want a passionate conservative, no doubt about it, but they are concerned about the style in regards to the delivery of the rhetoric,” he said. “They want somebody who is more of a statesman, in my humble opinion, and who is more interested in — not throwing bombs — but solving problems.”

Extremists candidates on the rise, but getting mixed results

In addition to his rhetoric, Paladino appears to have ties to an extremist group.

WBFO reported in June that uniformed members of the New York Watchmen, designated an anti-government militia by the Southern Poverty Law Center, attended a 2020 New Year’s Eve party at one of Paladino’s firm’s Buffalo properties, while Pete Harding, a one-time Watchmen member who was changed in the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, claimed that Paladino rented a bus for he and 40 others to attend a rally in Albany. And the Watchmen’s founder, Charles Pellien, endorsed Paladino in the primary.

Paladino denies any connection to the group.

SPLC has tracked 66 candidates who it says have ties to extremist groups or harbor extremist views, including 28 running for the House of Representatives, so far this election cycle.

Paladino is not one of them.

“In the case of Carl Paladino, I will say that this problem has just become such a large problem this election cycle, so it's kind of hard for us to track every candidate,” said SPLC senior research analyst Caleb Keefer, adding Paladino’s rhetoric and ties to a group like the Watchmen are similar to other candidates who are on its extremist list.

Of the 66 candidates on the list, 22 have won their primary and are heading to the general election this November.

Laura Loomer, a self-described Islamophobe, lost the Republican primary for a Florida congressional seat, while Michael Peroutka, a former member of an SPLC-designated hate group, is now the Republican nominee for Maryland attorney general.

“So it's been pretty mixed results,” Keefer said. “You've had some maybe longshot candidates go down as expected, but then maybe some who pushed through and were able to go on through to the next round.”

What’s next for Paladino?

When Reed resigned from the 23rd District before his term was over in May, he denounced “extremism” in the House from both Republicans and Democrats.

Reed, who decided a year earlier not to seek reelection due to a sexual misconduct allegation against him, now works for bipartisan lobbying firm Prime Policy Group. In that role, he said, he’s fighting extremism, encouraging both parties to support the best prepared candidates and not simply the most extreme.

Celia Clarke / WSKG

“Let's support the ones that show they have the capability to be a proud Republican and a proud Democrat, and make sure that they have the skill and the resources and the depth to tackle these problems that we need to face as a nation head on,” he said.

So Reed said he is not a fan of Paladino’s rhetoric.

“That's not conducive, I think, to bringing people together in a time in our country's history where we need that to occur,” he said.

Yet Reed also said he believes Paladino’s intentions are good. The two have known each for many years, and despite political disagreements, Reed said the two have a friendship.

“And he's had some personal tragedyin his life that really had changed his heart from going out to make money as opposed to serving his community. I've seen that side of Carl,” Reed said. “And so hopefully he'll take this time to reflect, look at it and not go down a negative path, but make it a positive opportunity for him to learn the lessons of life and move forward in a positive way.”

After his campaign alleged voting irregularities on primary night, Paladino released a statement the following day that he was “moving onto the next chapter of [his] life.”

Langworthy is now heavily favored to beat Democrat Max Della Pia this fall.

Copyright 2022 WBFO. To see more, visit WBFO.

Tom Dinki joined WBFO in August 2019 to cover issues affecting older adults.