By Roberta Rampton, Julia Harte and Ned Parker
CLEVELAND (Reuters) - For many Americans, Tuesday's congressional midterm elections are a referendum on Republican President Donald Trump’s divisive persona, hard-line policies and pugnacious politics.
But on the eve of the election, in a packed airport hangar in Cleveland and at other Trump rallies across the nation, the stakes are different: a vote to protect a leader they see as under siege, whose inflammatory rhetoric is a necessary price for a norm-shattering era of change.
"You think we're letting that caravan come into this country?" Trump asked the crowd on Monday, referring to a group of Central American migrants moving through Mexico toward the U.S. border.
"No!" his supporters shouted.
At rallies overflowing with red-hatted, mostly white supporters in conservative pockets of the country, those backing Trump say they hope to make his ideas the dominant force in American political life for decades to come.
They face strong headwinds. Nationally, about 52 percent of Americans disapprove of Trump's performance. More people say they would vote for a Democratic candidate than a Republican in Tuesday's congressional elections, Reuters/Ipsos polling shows.
But pro-Trump Republicans are eager to defy expectations, just as the president did with his 2016 victory.
In Grand Rapids, Michigan, pro-Trump activist Ben Hirschmann, 23, sees Tuesday's elections as decisive for Trump’s vision of America.
“Trump’s not on the ballot, but he is on the ballot," he said at a phone-bank event to get out the vote at the local Republican headquarters. "Everything we voted for in 2016 is on the line in 2018.”
'NOW WE'RE LIVING GOOD'
Trump embarked on a three-state tour in the Midwest on Monday, holding rallies in Ohio, Indiana and Missouri.
He has a clear strategy: drive Republican turnout by painting a dark, apocalyptic vision of life in America under Democrats, while fanning fears over illegal immigration. He casts his rivals as an angry, liberal and dangerous "mob" and plays up gains in the economy.
"Democrats produce mobs. Republicans produce jobs," Trump said in Cleveland, repeating a familiar line from his rallies.
But as the frequency of his speeches and rallies increases, so too have his distortions and falsehoods, according to the Washington Post's "Fact Checker" database. In the seven weeks before Tuesday's elections, Trump averaged 30 false or misleading claims a day, up from an average of five a day during his first nine months in office.
Trump frequently denies that he misleads the public and instead blames the media for what he describes as distortions of his words.
It is unclear whether Trump's campaign strategy will work.
Republicans are expected to keep control of the Senate. But Democrats are widely favored to win the 23 seats they need to assume control of the House of Representatives. The Republican Party is defending dozens of seats in largely suburban districts where Trump’s popularity has languished and Democrats have performed well in presidential races.
Trump's rallies have focused mostly on Senate and gubernatorial battles in states he won in the 2016 White House race – from Florida and Missouri to West Virginia and Ohio. A Trump adviser, who asked not to be identified, told Reuters: “These are places where data and polling information tells us that the president is of best use.”
At a rally in Johnson City, Tennessee, in early October, Jessica Lotz, 33, and her fiance, Chad Lavery, 49, said Trump’s immigration policies resonated with them. During the 2008 economic downturn, Lotz and Lavery said they saw construction, landscaping and house-painting jobs go to illegal immigrants while they struggled financially.
As the economy rebounded, so, too, did their fortunes.
“Now we're living good,” Lavery said, crediting their ability to find work and better wages to Trump, who inherited an economy that was already in one of its longest recoveries and gave it an additional boost with tax cuts.
After a Trump rally in September in Springfield, Missouri, pro-Trump activist Brenda Webb, 64, sat for a late dinner at a restaurant with five friends who had driven to the rally from the St. Louis suburbs.
Webb and her friends had joined protests against Democratic then-President Barack Obama in St. Louis in 2009 that were part of a broader conservative“Tea Party” movement centered on calls for smaller government, lower taxes and fewer regulations.
But the energy fizzled, she said. The group became animated talking about how Trump had given new focus to those early Tea Party goals of reclaiming government for ordinary citizens, not just the "elites" in Washington.
“We feel like he's working to resolve all the problems that we are so frustrated by,” Webb said.
At the Springfield rally, Brian Whorton, who drove a few hours to see the president, said he voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012 before becoming a Republican. "I was not politically aware and awake. I thought, 'Oh he's cool and he's a good speaker and an African-American guy,'" said Whorton, who is white.
Trump’s policies, he said, were making a difference for him: He said his manager at an aluminum electrical wire factory had credited Trump tariffs with raising their profits.
"He is putting people back to work," said retired postal worker Barbara Peacock, 58, as she leafed through Trump 2020 re-election merchandise at his rally in Macon, Georgia, on Sunday. "He is telling it like it is."
In Ohio, Republican National Committee spokeswoman Mandi Merritt referred to pro-Trump enthusiasts as a “grassroots army” that could be harnessed and dispatched to boost Republican voter turnout.
On a sunny day in October, Trump supporter Kimmy Kolkovich, 46, joined a friend on the sidewalk at a busy intersection near the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus to urge people to register and vote.
“Even if I’m registering people who are going to vote for the other party, they’re seeing us out here in our hats, and that’s what’s important, all the little interactions and conversations we’re having,” Kolkovich said.
For all Reuters election coverage, see: https://www.reuters.com/politics/election2018
(Reporting by Roberta Rampton in Cleveland, Ohio; Maria Caspani and Steve Holland in Macon, Georgia; Julia Harte in Grand Rapids, Michigan and Columbus, Ohio; and Ned Parker in Springfield, Missouri, and Johnson City, Tennessee; Editing by Jason Szep, Colleen Jenkins and Peter Cooney)