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A small-town cable operator may represent the future of big-league politics

Richard Mellon Scaife, take note: Elections are so inundated with cash that even you — the billionaire publisher of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review — may have trouble keeping up. Your past support of conservative causes has made you famous, but a small-town Pennsylvania family may represent the future of big-league politics.

Few Pittsburghers have probably ever heard of Butler-based Armstrong Group, or of the Sedwick family, which owns it. But among other things, Armstrong owns the Ponderosa steakhouse chain, an electronics company that does work for the military, and a security firm. Armstrong also owns a cable company, Armstrong Utilities, which serves suburban and rural Pittsburgh along with markets in several other states. 

And just a few weeks ago, Armstrong became a player on the national political scene. 

"I'm from Pittsburgh originally, but I never heard of this group," says Kathy Kiely, who works for the Sunlight Foundation. But her organization tracks contributions to "SuperPACs" — political committees that can receive, and spend, unlimited funds for political ads. And when she looked at September's spending, she made a surprising discovery: Armstrong reported giving $1.3 million in "in-kind cable access" to American Crossroads, a SuperPAC cofounded by Republican kingmaker Karl Rove. That made Armstrong one of the country's top SuperPAC donors — overnight.

"They went from zero-to-60 in a flash," says Kiely.

How much is $1.3 million? It's more than twice what the national Republican Party is reportedly spending to oust Democratic Sen. Bob Casey. And Armstrong's cable network extends into Ohio, the battleground state where a million bucks of free ads could sway a presidential election. 

Armstrong also gave conservatives another bit of free advertising: As City Paper reported online two weeks ago, the company offered free "on-demand" showings of 2016: Obama's America, a notorious "documentary" that argues President Obama wants to undermine America to serve his father's anti-colonial views. (Armstrong spokesman Dave Wittmann says 2016 was merely part of an ongoing promotion. He has declined comment on other aspects of this story.)

Kiely says the ad giveaway "seems like a new wrinkle — at least at this scale. When media executives give, it's usually the traditional way — by writing checks."

Of course, Armstrong execs do that, too. In September, Armstrong chairman Jay Sedwick gave $5,000 to Mitt Romney; since 2007, he his wife Linda have joined company president Dru Sedwick to contribute more than $265,000 to state and federal Republican organizations. That's not to mention contributions to candidates themselves: The Sedwicks have given more than $20,000 to local Tea Party congressional candidate Keith Rothfus alone. Such generosity puts them in nearly the same league as Scaife himself, who has given just under $300,000 to conservatives since 2011, local nonprofit journalism outfit PublicSource recently reported

But giving cash to politicians is so 2008. Thanks to a 2009 Supreme Court decision, Citizens United, corporations (and unions too) can spend unlimited sums on all kinds of political advocacy: big checks to Karl Rove, free ads, you name it. Armstrong's giveaway is just one of "the unexpected ways in which the Citizens United decision is playing out," says Tara Malloy, the senior legal counsel at the Campaign Legal Center. Groups like Rove's can circumvent other rules too: Ordinarily, if a broadcaster gives free airtime to a candidate, federal regulations require other candidates receive the same time. But those rules "only apply to candidates themselves," Malloy says — not to independent committees like American Crossroads. 

Given all these changes, the Dick Scaife approach — running newspapers and funding partisan "think tanks" — looks downright clunky. Why bother paying reporters to quote "experts"? Why not cut out the middlemen, and just give ideologues free ads? Why publish op-eds most voters won't read? Just run scary ads on the sports page, or during The A-Team reruns.

For that matter, why be content just owning a media operation? Why not diversify into industries — like food-service — that may benefit from the causes you advertise? (Armstrong's Ponderosa may compete with Outback Steakhouse and other chains for customers, but campaign-finance records suggest they're on the same team when it comes to backing Republicans.)

We'll soon find out if Scaife and the Sedwicks have their way this election. But no matter who wins, it's getting harder and harder for the wealthy to lose. 

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