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Embrace Trump? Duluth visit tests Minnesota GOP candidates

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Trump made Minnesota on of his stops on Sunday.
Then-presidential nominee Donald Trump held a campaign rally in the Sun Country Airlines Hangar at Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport on November 6, 2016 in Minneapolis.
Chip Somodevilla | Getty Images 2016

President Trump remains popular in parts of Minnesota. But the backlash to his recent policy moves has some state Republicans treading lightly as they weigh going all-in or keeping some distance during the president's Wednesday visit to Duluth.

Trump narrowly lost Minnesota to Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential race but soundly beat her in northeastern Minnesota's 8th District. The House seat in that area is now open, up for grabs and nationally important in the November election, which is a main reason Trump is coming.

Minnesota Republican candidates, however, are not united on embracing Trump when Air Force One touches down.

Party-endorsed U.S. Senate candidate Karin Housley and gubernatorial candidate Jeff Johnson say they'll be there, as will Pete Stauber, the 8th District hopeful backed by Trump, U.S. Senate candidate Jim Newberger and Jim Hagedorn, a Republican vying for the open 1st Congressional District seat in southern Minnesota.

Other Republicans, though, are wary of being seen too closely tied to Trump. That includes U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen, who's in a tough re-election campaign in a suburban Twin Cities District that two years ago voted overwhelmingly for Clinton even while giving Paulsen a fifth term.

Paulsen won't be at the Duluth rally. An adviser cited the possibility of votes in Washington as the reason.

He's criticized Trump's moves on trade and immigration, ripping the administration for separating families caught trying to enter the country illegally. "The United States should not forcibly break up families," he wrote. "This is just not what America is about."

Also on the fence: former GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who is seeking a return to the state's top office.

Pawlenty's view toward Trump is mixed. He split with Trump in 2016 after the vulgar "Access Hollywood" tape emerged late in the campaign and called Trump "unsound, uninformed, unhinged and unfit" to be president.

Last April, however, after declaring his candidacy for governor, Pawlenty said he voted for Trump and backed most of Trump's policies.

"Like a lot of Republicans, and I think many other Minnesotans, I'm concerned sometimes about his behavior and his language," he told MPR News last week. "But in terms of his policy priorities and areas of focus I agree with many of them, most of them."

A Pawlenty spokesperson declined repeated requests to say definitively whether Pawlenty will be there, saying only that Pawlenty supports Trump coming to Minnesota to fire up voters for Stauber.

Johnson, though, the other Republican in the Aug. 14 gubernatorial primary, said he'll make it clear to Republican primary voters that Pawlenty bailed on Trump when it mattered.

"I would very much welcome Donald Trump's support and I think that would raise the visibility of this race a lot in the state to the people who maybe aren't paying much attention," said Johnson, a Hennepin County commissioner.  

Whether Trump will get involved in the race — as he's done in some other governors contests — remains to be seen.

The Republican base has rewarded candidates who don't waver on Trump, and in some states Trump exacted revenge on Republicans critical of him, his style or his agenda, said GOP political analyst Alice Stewart.

"There's no predicting who is going to be in the president's crosshairs from one day to the next," said Stewart, who's worked in several national GOP campaigns. "The key is just to keep your head down and look over your shoulder at the same time."

Minnesota Democrats say Trump's arrival will galvanize their supporters and candidates in the 2018 election — and pose a risk to Republicans who get too close to the president. "Any Republican candidate who stands with Donald Trump is going to pay the price for doing so," said DFL Party Chair Ken Martin.

GOP U.S. House Reps. Tom Emmer and Jason Lewis plan to take part in an economic roundtable with Trump in Duluth ahead of Wednesday's rally.

Lewis, whose 2nd District went to Trump by a single percentage point two years ago, believes the administration's pro-business, pro-tax cut efforts will buoy Minnesota Republicans this fall, adding, "I don't think he is nearly as unpopular as people think or as the Democrats would like."

MPR News reporter Mark Zdechlik contributed to this report.