Nick Langworthy, the chairman of the New York GOP, bested Buffalo businessman Carl Paladino in a western New York primary brawl that doubled as a proxy battle between some of the state's most influential Republicans, NBC News projects.
The primary for New York’s redrawn 23rd Congressional District, spanning the Buffalo suburbs through the southwestern part of the state, had been a 12-week sprint after Rep. Chris Jacobs, R-N.Y., announced he would not seek re-election after he expressed support for a ban on assault-style weapons. There was a separate special election Tuesday to fill the brief remainder of Jacobs’ turn.
Langworthy, who was up by about 4 points over Paladino shortly before midnight ET, surged ahead based on the strength of his support in the state's southwestern region, while much of Paladino's support was concentrated in the Buffalo suburbs.
"I learned a lot of values growing up on the Southern Tier. But the one was when you confront a bully, you punch them in the face and you take them down a peg and they won’t mess with you again," Langworthy said in his victory address. "And we did that here in this district tonight. And we sent a loud and clear message that people want decent, stable, honest, conservative, Republican leadership going forward."
Paladino's defeat came 12 years after he cruised to the party's 2010 nomination for governor before he suffered a crushing loss that fall to Andrew Cuomo.
Both candidates had sought to highlight their closeness to former President Donald Trump, while Paladino was endorsed by Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., the No. 3 House Republican. Stefanik's endorsement caused consternation among GOP leaders, given Paladino's well-documented history of making incendiary and racist comments, NBC News reported in June.
Polling had been sparse and all over the map. An independent survey released this month by Barry Zeplowitz and Associates of Buffalo found a neck-and-neck battle, while a Paladino campaign survey last month suggested he was up by 30 points. Langworthy is now almost assured of winning the general election, as the Cook Political Report rates the district as a safe Republican seat.
Republican strategist Michael Caputo, a Paladino ally, expressed confidence to NBC News ahead of the election that the district’s heavily Republican makeup would work in Paladino's favor.
"It is the most Republican district in New York and one of the most Republican districts in the Northeast," said Caputo, a former Trump administration official. Referring to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., he said: "And there are elements of the kind of McConnell wing of the Republican Party in New York and many, many Democrats who just cannot get used to something that is increasingly inevitable. And that’s that they’re going to be calling him Congressman Paladino. Suck it up. Get used to it."
In the end, a Paladino victory did not come to pass.
His bid brought renewed attention to his long-scrutinized rhetoric. Soon after he entered the race, he sparked backlash over a post on his Facebook account claiming mass shootings this year in Uvalde, Texas, and Buffalo were "false flag" operations. Then, audio of an interview Paladino gave to Buffalo’s WBEN radio last year was unearthed in which he said Adolf Hitler was "the kind of leader we need today."
Paladino said in a statement that the remarks were a "serious mistake," but he argued that they were not in proper context. But just last week, Paladino told Breitbart Radio that Attorney General Merrick Garland "should not only be impeached, he probably should be executed," after the FBI searched Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate this month, according to The Associated Press. He said later in the same interview that he was "just being facetious," which a spokesperson reiterated to The Buffalo News.
"Carl does not think Garland should be executed, and when you listen to the interview, when asked what he meant, he stated he was being facetious," the spokesperson told the paper.
In 2016, Paladino, then a member of the Buffalo Board of Education, made racist remarks about then-first lady Michelle Obama’s being "let loose in the outback of Zimbabwe where she lives comfortably in a cave with Maxie, the gorilla," and said he wished then-President Barack Obama would die of mad cow disease after having sex with a cow. He later said he "could not have made a worse choice in the words I used to express my feelings."
A source close to Paladino, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about the race, suggested that Paladino's habit of headline-making comments has not had much of a negative impact with primary voters.
Paladino has "admitted to a lot of things that have come out that he didn’t really mean," this person added. "Again, being kind of a normal average Joe, people can identify with that. Because everybody kind of says something stupid once in a while."
Chris Grant, an adviser to Langworthy’s campaign, cited the competitive nature of the race to argue that voters do care about Paladino's past comments.
It is not a choice between "crazy Carl and a crazy socialist Democrat," Grant said. "It’s between crazy Carl and a very Trumpy, very conservative younger candidate who isn’t going to embarrass the district."
The race was bitterly contested. Paladino allies criticized Langworthy for campaign materials that they said made it appear as if Trump had endorsed his campaign. Paladino also sent a letter asking all GOP county leaders and many GOP activists to urge Langworthy to step down as chairman, accusing him of being conflicted and of improperly using party resources to boost his candidacy. Langworthy has denied the accusations.
Kedric Payne, a vice president at the Campaign Legal Center, a nonprofit government watchdog group, told NBC News in a statement: "This is more of a conflict of priorities than a conflict of interest."
Langworthy’s campaign, meanwhile, sought to compare Paladino, who is celebrating his 76th birthday Wednesday and would have been one of the oldest House freshmen ever elected, with President Joe Biden. And his ads attacked Paladino for years-old donations to Democrats and for Planned Parenthood’s being a tenant in a building his company owns.
"Carl Paladino is like the Joe Biden in this race," Grant said in response to the conflict-of-interest accusations. "So I get that it’s difficult for him to walk and chew gum at the same time."
Asked about the attacks on his age, the source close to Paladino said: "Does [Langworthy] realize that 75% of the Republican primary voters in this district are over age 55? Is that really a wise move?"
Trump did not make an endorsement in the race. He has close ties to both candidates, which each touted throughout the campaign. Trump supported Paladino’s 2010 gubernatorial bid, and, in turn, Paladino was an early supporter of his first presidential bid. Meanwhile, Trump backed Langworthy’s bid to become state party chairman, which was ultimately successful in 2019.
But while Trump did not offer his backing, a pair of influential House Republicans with big ambitions did. Stefanik, who held a tele-rally for Paladino on Monday evening, announced her support for Paladino almost immediately after Jacobs announced his retirement. And Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind., the chairman of the influential Republican Study Committee, announced his support for Langworthy in early July. Banks is a potential rival of Stefanik’s for a leadership post in the next Congress.
A New York Republican close to Langworthy, who requested anonymity without authorization to speak about the race, mentioned being "cautiously optimistic" about his chances ahead of Tuesday.
"Everyone thinks that because [Paladino] won that gubernatorial primary so handily and the vote from western New York was ridiculous," he will walk away with Tuesday’s election, this person said. "But it was a different time. Granted, there was controversial stuff about him, but not to this level."
CORRECTION (Aug. 23, 2022, 5:52 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misspelled the first name of a vice president with the Campaign Legal Center, a nonprofit government watchdog group. He is Kedric Payne, not Kendric.