‘Crazy Carl’ tries to tone it down as Paladino sees House seat within reach

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Paladino has spent over a decade as the most famously off-the-cuff politician in New York, gaining notoriety for incidents where he’s emailed bestiality porn to professional colleagues and praised Adolf Hitler on the radio.

The Buffalo businessman now finds himself well-positioned in a primary Tuesday against the party’s state boss in Western New York. The winner will be the favorite in November to succeed the recently-retired Republican Rep. Tom Reed, and if Paladino wins, he would join the far-right faction of the House as Republicans hope to win back control in January. He would also be one of the oldest freshman in congressional history.

Paladino stoked a new round of controversy on Wednesday after the Buffalo News reported that he said Attorney General Merrick Garland “probably should be executed” for the search on Mar-a-Lago. In the interview with Breitbart Radio, Paladino later backtracked, saying “I’m just being facetious” and that Garland should merely be removed from office.

The latest comments aside, what’s remarkable to those who have followed his career is that he managed to make it 11 weeks through a 12-week sprint to win the GOP nomination without saying anything incendiary or overtly racist. By Paladino’s standards, his campaign has been buttoned-up and on-message, with him avoiding debates and restricting access to the local press as he speaks without his usual energy.

Republican congressional candidate Carl Paladino speaks at a campaign event in July 2022 near his hometown in Buffalo. | Bill Mahoney/POLITICO

“One of the underrated difference makers is that Carl has a professional staff this time,” said Jack O’Donnell, a Buffalo Democratic consultant.

“He still has some of the regular cast of characters,” O’Donnell noted. But he’s also been helped by individuals with ties to officials such as New York Rep. Elise Stefanik, who endorsed Paladino before he launched his campaign and helped him get on the ballot. And those staffers “are running this and running it in a professional manner — and that includes not letting him say crazy things.”

Paladino entered the statewide political consciousness with a 2010 gubernatorial campaign in which he declared himself “mad as hell” about Albany, seizing on the Tea Party movement and removing all the traditional restraints on political discourse. He then built a relationship with Donald Trump, getting Trump to speak at a pro-gun-rights rally in Albany and encouraging Trump to run for governor in 2014 — an idea the future president toyed with before setting his sights on Washington.

Every occasion Paladino has reentered public life since then has ended with him doing something to offend even people who aren’t easily offended, prompting Republican allies to distance themselves. That has, at times, included Trump, who is not expected to make an endorsement in the race of two people he has considered as friends.

“Carl’s comments are absolutely reprehensible,” Donald Trump’s transition team said in 2016 after Paladino said he wanted Barack Obama to die from having sex with a cow and Michelle Obama to “return to being a male” and start living with a gorilla in Zimbabwe.

With the backing of Stefanik as she looks to help Republicans retake the House and boost her leadership role, Paladino launched a campaign in early June to represent Buffalo’s suburbs and much of New York’s border with Pennsylvania in the House.

And the initial tenor of his campaign quickly promised more of the same inflammatory comments he is best known for. Within a week of his launch, he gained national attention for reports highlighting comments he made in a 2021 radio interview saying that America needs more leaders like Hitler and a Facebook post made just days prior saying that the racist mass shooting in Buffalo in May was a “false flag.”

Then he largely went silent.

Paladino regularly touted the value of debates in his first run for high office. While challenging former Rep. Rick Lazio for the Republican gubernatorial nomination in 2010, he had a staffer in a chicken suit follow Lazio around.

And it became a regular talking point after he stunned Lazio to set up a general election matchup with then-Attorney General Andrew Cuomo. He handedly lost that race after a campaign that included the disclosure of emails he had sent that included pornography, racist imagery and the N-word.

“Come out and debate like a man!” Paladino challenged Cuomo in a 2010 ad that was most famous for his attempts to deflect criticisms over an extramarital affair by declaring that “Andrew’s prowess is legendary.”

Now, he has deemed Langworthy’s request for debates a “political stunt.”

“I would ask Carl, why don’t you go back and read your own headlines from 2010 when you called Rick Lazio a coward because he refused to debate? What are you afraid of?” Langworthy said. “He doesn’t want to answer for his record.”

Broadcaster and former Westchester County district attorney Jeanine Pirro, left, and former Republican gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino, address the audience during a Second Amendment rally on Tuesday, June 11, 2013, in Albany, N.Y. | Mike Groll/AP Photo

Paladino has never won an office higher than Buffalo’s school board — a job he was removed from by the state when he publicly shared confidential details of contract negotiations. He also battled regularly with his colleagues.

Since starting his campaign, Paladino conducted a handful of interviews with outlets like Newsmax and Steve Bannon’s podcast. But the local media was largely shunted to the side at the start of his candidacy and left to report stories about how he was dodging questions.

He has done some interviews with local outlets like WGRZ and Spectrum News in the final days before the polls opened last Saturday, largely staying on message and avoiding the fire breathing that defined his past campaigns.

“I’m a lot more careful today than I was when I took on Fred Dicker in the gubernatorial campaign,” he said in an interview on Springville-based TV station WBBZ, referencing a famously combative New York Post columnist. In that campaign, Paladino publicly threatened to “take [Dicker] out” after the reporter asked for evidence supporting Paladino’s claims that Cuomo had previously had extramarital affairs — a moment that went viral when social media was still in its infancy.

And that seems to be his style of speaking throughout all his campaign stops.

Consider the entirety of his remarks before the Chemung County Fair’s demolition derby earlier this month: “I’m running in the 23rd District, and Elmira is part of the 23rd Congressional District. I’m running to be your congressman in the Republican primary on Aug. 23. Early voting starts on the 13th. I would appreciate your vote; I’m just one of you and I want to do a good job for you. I want to be your voice in Washington. Thank you very, very much and I appreciate your thoughts.”

Paladino, who turns 76 the day after the primary, would be just a couple years shy of being the oldest freshman ever to serve in the House. And Langworthy, 41, has begun to insinuate that Paladino’s new toned-down style is evidence that his opponent might be getting too old for the job.

“My lord, is this Joe Biden or Carl Paladino?” the party chair tweeted in response to a Paladino video Aug. 13. “No wonder he has refused every debate we have challenged him to.”

Nick Langworthy, the state GOP chairman in New York, is trying to defeat Carl Paladino, the 2010 Republican candidate for governor, in a primary Tuesday. | Nick Niedzwiadek/POLITICO

Paladino was indisputably the better-known candidate at the beginning of the race. Langworthy thus entered the campaign needing to play catch-up — something that is not impossible due to his experience and his dominant lead in endorsements from the types of local Republican leaders who can help get people to the polls.

“Nick’s got much more of a better feel on how to win elections than Carl Paladino does,” said Erie County GOP Chair Karl Simmeth.

But playing catch up would have been a lot easier if the story of the race had involved weeks on end of Paladino making controversial comments while Langworthy stayed on message.

Instead, the race has been one in which both candidates lay out similar ideas about how Biden needs to be held accountable and inflation needs to be reined in. They’ve attacked each other on their campaign funding, with Paladino going after Langworthy for being supported by moneyed interests with ties to “RINOs” like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and with Langworhty questioning Paladino’s delay in filing financial disclosure forms as he largely self-funds his campaigns.

And they’ve both tried to present themselves as having the support of Trump, who has offered warm words for each candidate in the past yet has stayed out of the race — as Trump did in the Republican gubernatorial primary in June.

Attempts to interview Paladino were unsuccessful. A reporter first requested an interview with him before visiting the district over Fourth of July weekend, yet was told that the candidate was unlikely to have any public appearances around the holiday. His campaign posted a video on July 5 of him participating in two parades the prior day.

When the reporter encountered Paladino at the Republican event in Depew in late July, the candidate’s staff quickly said he would not take questions. A few were asked. And each question was met with a reply in the same style: brief and on message.

“We’re going to win,” Paladino said while being escorted away by individuals in “Carl Country” shirts.

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