Could Carl Paladino and His ‘3-Ring Circus’ Be Headed for Congress?

OLEAN, N.Y. — During his decade-plus in New York politics, Carl Paladino has had no problem making headlines, usually for all the wrong reasons.

There was the time he spoke highly of Hitler. Or the occasion when he made grossly racist remarks about Michelle Obama. Not to mention his suggestion that children have been brainwashed into accepting homosexuality.

The ensuing criticism, however, has had little effect on Mr. Paladino, 75, a die-hard Republican and a Buffalo-area developer, or on his political aspirations: After a fleeting career as a member of the city’s school board — he was effectively deposed — he has now launched a campaign to be the next duly elected representative of the 23rd Congressional District in western New York.

His latest attempt at a comeback involves an ugly primary battle that has caused a deep schism in his own party. His opponent is Nick Langworthy, the state Republican Party chairman.

Mr. Langworthy, a onetime ally of Mr. Paladino, is trying to steer New York Republicans away from the crassest elements fueling former President Donald J. Trump’s MAGA following, saying that the party has “come too far” to be undone by Mr. Paladino’s antics.

Crucially, he says, Mr. Paladino could damage the campaign for governor by Representative Lee M. Zeldin, the Long Island Republican who is considered by many to have the party’s best chance of winning the governor’s mansion in two decades.

“Carl’s candidacy is a big reason why I decided to do this,” Mr. Langworthy said, calling Mr. Paladino “a huge detriment” to the Republican ticket in 2022. “We’ve got the best shot to win in 20 years, and the three-ring circus that he brings to the table, with the way that he handles things and himself, will basically be held against every candidate in the state.”

Despite his general outspokenness, Mr. Paladino has waged a largely subdued campaign, preferring to attack Mr. Langworthy via news release and interviews on reliably Trumpian outlets like “War Room” with Steve Bannon, where he recently promised not only to impeach President Biden — “on Day 1” — but also to bring down the U.S. attorney general, Merrick Garland.

One of his campaign talking points — “You know me” — seems keyed into maximizing his name recognition, which he says gives him an undeniable advantage as both a candidate and a potential congressman.

“I have a proven track record as a conservative fighter, who will not back down,” Mr. Paladino said in a statement, adding that he was an early supporter of Mr. Trump. “People here know me and trust me.”

Mr. Paladino also has a decided financial edge, having lent his campaign $1.5 million — nearly the entirety of his war chest, according to federal disclosure reports. Mr. Langworthy has spent little of the $307,000 raised in campaign donations, the bulk of it from individual contributions.

Still, Mr. Langworthy is hoping that his rival’s history of transgressions will outweigh his money.

“People know you,” Mr. Langworthy said. “It doesn’t mean that people like you.”

The fame — or notoriety — of Mr. Paladino, and his capacity for campaign spending are not the only obstacles that Mr. Langworthy faces. Representative Elise Stefanik, the ardent upstate devotee of Mr. Trump who is the House of Representatives’ No. 3 Republican, has backed Mr. Paladino, as have other Trump-world notables like Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida, who has had his own share of controversy.

Ms. Stefanik, in particular, has lobbed savage Trump-like bon mots back and forth with Mr. Langworthy and is expected to campaign for Mr. Paladino in the district ahead of the Aug. 23 primary.

Considering Mr. Paladino’s record of racist and sexist remarks, Ms. Stefanik’s endorsement raised some eyebrows, though she cast it as testament to his career as a business leader.

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