ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — President Donald Trump's appearance Thursday at a rally in Rochester, Minnesota, marks his second stop to friendly territory in the otherwise traditionally blue state, where other Republicans in competitive congressional races aren't as anxious to receive him.
Trump's Minnesota visits aim to bolster GOP efforts in two of their top targeted Democratic districts, critical seats in their quest to maintain control of the House in a midterm election that could be bruising for the president's party.
In June, Trump headlined a rally in northeastern Minnesota for the candidate Republicans hope can win back a once-reliable Democratic stronghold after it swung for Trump in 2016.
But the president's popularity is less certain to help carry Republicans in the state's suburban pockets. Two GOP incumbents there are among Democrats' top targets nationwide as they try to net the 23 seats needed to regain control of the House.
The Rochester visit brings Trump to Minnesota's 1st Congressional District, a Republican-leaning area Democrats have controlled for 12 years. Third-time GOP candidate Jim Hagedorn is hoping to finally break through after nearly unseating Rep. Tim Walz in 2016, despite the race generating little attention or outside help.
Walz's decision to run for Minnesota governor this year made Hagedorn's race a top priority for Republicans. Outside political groups from both parties have already spent $4 million, more than every previous election combined since at least 2010. Hagedorn, a businessman and the son of the area's former congressman, hopes newfound publicity stemming in part from Trump's visit will carry him to victory.
"We're pretty much the best pickup opportunity in the nation for the Republican Party," Hagedorn said. "It's a place where the president and the Republicans can be on offense."
Hagedorn has been an unabashed supporter of Trump since his 2016 campaign, telling southern Minnesota voters he'd go to Congress as "conservative reinforcement" for the president. That message helped him easily win a Republican primary in August over a more moderate state senator and advance to face Democratic candidate Dan Feehan, a veteran and former acting Assistant Secretary of Defense in President Barack Obama's administration.
It's a similar story in northeastern Minnesota, where Republican County Commissioner Pete Stauber is running against former state Rep. Joe Radinovich in an open race for the 8th Congressional District. Democratic Rep. Rick Nolan is retiring from his second stint in Congress after winning three nail-biter races, including eking out a 2016 victory even as Trump won the district by more than 15 percentage points.
It's potentially ripe territory for Trump and Republicans, borne out by his June 20 rally for Stauber in Duluth. His administration's tariffs on steel imports played well in the district, which is home to the state's famed Iron Range mines.
Former state House Republican Minority Leader Marty Seifert said it's unclear whether Trump has retained the popularity in Minnesota that brought him less than 2 percentage points shy of being the first GOP presidential candidate to win the state since 1972. But he guessed the steel tariffs would help him boost Stauber, while the resolution of a trade agreement with Canada and Mexico this week could allay the concerns of farmers in southern Minnesota.
"There's little doubt in my mind that Trump is more popular in the rural areas than he is in the suburbs," Seifert said. "There's no doubt the White House sees the opportunity."
That opening is less clear for Republicans running in Minnesota's suburbs, where first-term Rep. Jason Lewis and fifth-term Rep. Erik Paulsen are locked in close re-election bids. The president's sinking support in the suburbs has put both lawmakers in a tricky position against well-financed Democrats.
Paulsen began his campaign against Democratic businessman Dean Phillips with an ad highlighting breaking with Trump in a vote to block mining near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Campaign manager John-Paul Yates said Paulsen would not attend Thursday's rally.
Lewis was set to join Trump and fellow Republicans in Rochester, campaign manager Becky Alery said. The former conservative talk radio host faces a rematch from Angie Craig, whom he beat by less than 2 percentage points in 2016.