By Nathan Layne
WELLINGTON, Ohio (Reuters) -At his first rally since leaving the White House, former President Donald Trump on Saturday lambasted the Biden administration's immigration policies and urged his supporters to help Republicans take back majorities in Congress.
While Trump has made speeches at Republican events since his election defeat by Democratic President Joe Biden, the rally in a state he carried in the 2020 election marks a return to the kind of freewheeling mass gatherings that have been critical to retaining the support of his base.
Trump left office in the aftermath of the deadly Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol by his supporters, shortly after a speech in which he repeated his false claims that his election defeat was the result of fraud. He survived a second impeachment and has kept a broad influence over the Republican Party, in part by leaving open the question of whether he will run for office again in 2024.
On Saturday, to a crowd of thousands of cheering supporters, Trump highlighted some of his regular list of grievances, with criticism of U.S. elections and a particular focus on the rising number of immigrants crossing into the United States from its southern border.
"We will take back the House, we will take back the Senate, and we will take back America, and we will do it soon," he said.
Democrats' razor-thin majorities in both chambers of Congress will be on the line in the 2022 midterm elections and history favors Republicans' chances of gaining seats in those contests.
Trump's return to a big rally marks the start of public events lashing out at elected Republicans who he views as having crossed him. In Ohio he campaigned for former White House aide Max Miller, who has launched a primary challenge against Representative Anthony Gonzalez, one of the 10 House Republicans https://www.reuters.com/article/usa-trump-republicans-impeachment-idINKBN29I1A8 who voted to impeach Trump on a charge of inciting the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol by his supporters that left five dead including a Capitol Police officer.
Trump has vowed to campaign against all 10. He has also endorsed a challenger to Senator Lisa Murkowski, the only one of the seven Senate Republicans https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-trump-impeachment-senators-factbo/factbox-seven-republicans-vote-to-convict-trump-in-impeachment-trial-idUSKBN2AD0AO who voted to convict him in his January impeachment trial who is up for re-election in 2022.
The Ohio event in Wellington, about 40 miles (64 km) southwest of Cleveland, was the first of three public appearances, followed by a trip to the U.S.-Mexico border with Texas Governor Greg Abbott on June 30 and a rally in Sarasota, Florida, on July 3.
Supporters said they hoped Trump would use such events to help unify the party behind like-minded candidates for Congress.
"Continuing these rallies is extremely important," said Jessica Dicken, a 30-year-old stay-at-home mom from southeast Ohio, adding Trump could be "a voice for the more conservative movement here in Ohio and across the nation."
'WE'LL LOSE OUR COUNTRY'
Trump has continued to feud with other senior Republicans. He has lashed out at former Vice President Mike Pence, who he falsely claims could have stopped Congress from certifying Biden's victory on Jan. 6, as well as at Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell for calling Trump "practically and morally responsible" for that day's violence.
Pence defended his actions in a Thursday speech https://www.reuters.com/world/us/pence-proud-his-jan-6-actions-despite-criticism-trump-2021-06-25 at the Ronald Reagan library.
"There's more at stake than our party and our political fortunes in this moment," Pence said. "If we lose faith in the Constitution, we won't just lose elections - we'll lose our country."
Trump's repeated false claims of election fraud have taken hold of Republican voters. Some 53% of Republicans believe Trump won the 2020 election and blame his loss on illegal voting, and one quarter of the overall public agreed that Trump won, a Reuters/Ipsos poll found.
Republican strategist Matt Dole said both Trump and those vying to stay close to him benefited from such public displays of bonhomie. Some of the candidates now seeking his endorsement have made disparaging comments about Trump in the past.
"These are marriages of convenience," said Dole, who is based in Ohio. "Donald Trump is using these opportunities to keep his name out there, to keep the base motivated."
(Reporting by Nathan Layne; additional reporting by Jeff Mason and Mike Stone; Editing by Scott Malone, Daniel Wallis and Chris Reese)