Former U.S. president Donald Trump holds a rally on Sept. 23, 2022, in Wilmington, N.C. Two years since a presidential election defeat he continues to deny, Trump continues to exert outsized influence on the U.S. campaign trail. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Chris Seward

On U.S. campaign trail and beyond, Trump’s familiar silhouette proving inescapable

WASHINGTON — He’s the Kevin Bacon of modern American politics, a familiar shadow that seems to loom over or lurk behind virtually every major storyline playing out on the U.S. campaign trail and beyond.

But forget six degrees of separation — with Donald Trump, it’s often only a couple.

Abortion controversy in Georgia? Trump and Herschel Walker are longtime friends. Kooky Republican hopefuls in key swing states? Chances are, they were backed by Trump. Fears of political motives at the Supreme Court? Trump nominated three of the justices.

No points for correctly guessing who Mark Finchem — currently the front-runner to become Arizona’s next secretary of state, making him the state’s top election official — thinks won the 2020 presidential election.

“Trump is unique in the role he has tried to play in shaping the voter choices in this year’s elections,” said Charles Bullock, a professor of political science at the University of Georgia.

“He likes to be in the spotlight; he loves that. And then adding to that incentive for him is the desire for redemption or revenge, with his hope that he can reclaim the presidency that he claims he never lost.”

Trump’s never-apologize, admit-nothing style was on clear display this week in Georgia, where Walker, a fabled college and NFL running back with no prior political experience, is seeking to wrest a key Senate seat away from Democratic incumbent Sen. Raphael Warnock.

Walker, a self-proclaimed opponent of abortion, adamantly denies media reports that he paid an ex-girlfriend who underwent the procedure in 2009. Walker insists he does not know the woman; the Daily Beast website, which broke the original story, says she’s the mother of one of his four kids.

It’s just the latest Walker revelation to make headlines in Georgia, many suggesting another parallel with the former president: a disdain for the truth. Several of his claims — a foray into law enforcement, including with the FBI; overstating the size and worth of a food service business that bears his name; having only one child — have been thoroughly disproven.

“This here, the abortion thing, is false. It’s a lie,” Walker said Thursday. “I’m here to win this seat for the Georgia people, because the Georgia people need a winner.”

So do Republicans, given the current 50-50 split in the Senate and the neck-and-neck battles they are fighting in other key battlegrounds like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Nevada and Arizona, all of which feature Trump-endorsed GOP candidates.

An all-candidates debate Thursday in Phoenix showcased both Trump’s lingering — and demonstrably false — conspiracy theories about the 2020 presidential election, as well as the challenge of reconciling fealty to the former president with the practical demands of soliciting votes.

Blake Masters, his “Make America Safe Again” slogan a clear echo of Trump’s familiar battle cry, cracked jokes as he ducked and weaved around moderator Ted Simon’s best efforts to corner him on his beliefs about who should be in the White House.

“Joe Biden is absolutely the president,” said Masters, who famously declared the opposite during his primary campaign. “I mean, my gosh, have you seen gas prices lately?”

Eventually, though, he deftly tried to square the circle this way: “I suspect President Trump would be in the White House today if Big Tech and Big Media and the FBI didn’t work together to put the thumb on the scale to get Joe Biden in there.”

Even beyond the 2022 midterms, the former president and his legacy, his election conspiracies and his outsized influence on voters and campaign tactics are never far away.

His reshaping of the Supreme Court, which abandoned the landmark Roe v. Wade decision in June, has helped to make abortion a hot-button issue for Democrats in Senate, House and gubernatorial races. Voters may now opt for senators who can moderate the court’s influence, said Capri Cafaro, a former Ohio state senator who teaches politics at American University in Washington, D.C.

“The Supreme Court, at least right now, is game, set and match as far as the balance of power,” Cafaro said. “The fact that Donald Trump was able to appoint and confirm three Supreme Court justices in four years creates an urgency in the long term (for) electing senators that will at least hold judicial nominees accountable.”

And he’s not going anywhere any time soon.

The jaw-dropping search warrant investigators served back in August at Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s country club hideaway in Florida, helped vault the former president back into the headlines, where the controversy over the documents he spirited away from the White House has remained ever since.

That search — Trump called it a “raid” — also served to agitate some of his most vocal supporters, suggests a report in the New York Times that found the use of the phrase “civil war” spiked dramatically online in the days and weeks that followed.

Later this week, the select committee investigating the Capitol Hill riots of Jan. 6, 2021, will hold its final public hearing before voters head to the polls Nov. 8 — a made-for-TV event sure to showcase America’s deep-seated cultural and political divisions in a superheated political atmosphere.

Meanwhile, Biden, his dismal approval ratings having ticked up in recent weeks, is hoping that talking more openly about his predecessor’s legacy will help to blunt powerful Republican attacks about the state of the U.S. economy, in particular fears about inflation and rising gas prices.

He didn’t mention the former president by name Friday during a campaign-style speech at a Volvo manufacturing facility in Hagerstown, Md., but he certainly invoked Trump’s legacy, drawing a sharp distinction between America’s storied history and the conspiracy-minded, QAnon-fuelled nature of modern U.S. political discourse.

“Just remember who in hell we are — we’re the United States of America. There’s nothing, nothing we’ve ever set our minds to that we’ve not been able to do,” Biden suddenly shouted.

“That’s my hope, that after this election, there’ll be a little return to sanity. We’ll stop this bitterness that exists between the parties and have people working together.”

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