ST. PAUL, Minn. — President Donald Trump's campaign trip Wednesday to Minnesota could signal whether he'll wade into the GOP's primary for governor between a former two-term governor who once called him "unhinged" and an underdog who is an avowed supporter.
The rally in Duluth is officially for Pete Stauber, a Republican congressional candidate running in a traditionally Democratic district. Home of the state's famed Iron Range, Minnesota is important ground for Trump as a place where his new tariffs on foreign steel could play especially well.
Trump will be holding a round table discussion on "protecting American workers" to highlight the issue ahead of the rally. Attending will be representatives and workers from the mining and steel industries, local elected officials and members and Congress from the state, which he narrowly lost in 2016.
"You're going to see the president talking about the steel miners, truckers and port workers," said Bill Stepien, the White House Director of Political Affairs, who said local elected officials "whose economies are booming because of the president's policies" will also be in attendance.
But it also comes after the latest reminder that crossing the president can be perilous for Republicans. Trump celebrated on Twitter last week after South Carolina Rep. Mark Sanford, who repeatedly criticized the president, lost a Republican primary. Trump took another dig at Sanford Tuesday night during a closed-door meeting with House Republicans, eliciting boos from some in the room, several in attendance said.
A similar script is materializing in Minnesota's race to replace outgoing Gov. Mark Dayton. Few Republicans have criticized Trump more strongly than former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who is seeking his old job.
In 2016, Pawlenty said Trump was "unsound, uninformed, unhinged and unfit to be president of the United States" in the days after a recording of the presidential candidate making vulgar comments about women surfaced. After launching his campaign in April, Pawlenty said he still voted for Trump in 2016 and supports the president's policies.
Jeff Johnson, the state GOP's endorsed candidate for governor, has been stronger in his support of the president. He and his allies have portrayed himself as more in tune with the party's base and say Pawlenty — who holds a huge fundraising advantage — should be disqualified for his criticism of Trump.
Republican political operative Gregg Peppin said it's another chance for Trump to aid an underdog candidate who has been a loyal supporter.
"I think it's a pretty cut-and-dried case in this instance," said Peppin, who worked for another GOP candidate for governor who has since quit the race. "It presents the president with an excellent opportunity to test his theory. Whether he'll do that, remains to be seen."
Trump has a mixed record when supporting his strongest defenders, including Roy Moore in a losing U.S. Senate campaign in deep-red Alabama. He has also shown himself willing to put aside grudges; he endorsed Mitt Romney, who called Trump a "fraud" in 2016, for Senate in Utah.
Johnson has made clear he'd like Trump's endorsement in the Aug. 14 primary against Pawlenty, but said he doesn't expect any help to come this week. Regardless, he planned to attend Wednesday's rally and hoped it will mobilize GOP voters for the summer.
"I truly believe that it will energize a lot of Republican voters in the state ... and get people to start paying attention earlier than they normally would," Johnson said. "Part of my case is that it's going to be hard for Tim to win an election without bringing in some of the new voters that Donald Trump brought in in 2016. I just don't think Tim can."
Pawlenty's campaign did not respond to questions about whether he planned to attend the Duluth rally.
"It's our understanding that the rally in Duluth is focused on supporting Pete Stauber in his race for the 8th Congressional District. We believe that's appropriate," campaign spokesman Sam Winter said.
The announced purpose of the rally Wednesday is to boost Stauber, the Republican running in the traditionally Democratic northeastern Minnesota district that Trump won by more than 15 percentage points in 2016. It comes amid a furor surrounding the Trump administration moves to slap tariffs on imports from several countries, including on foreign steel.
While economists wince and farmers brace for blowback, those moves could be a boon in the 8th District, home to the state's famed Iron Range, where iron ore workers have struggled with economic downturns driven by an influx in foreign-imported steel.
Stauber is running to replace Democratic Rep. Rick Nolan, who is leaving Congress after three hard-fought elections to the seat. Democrats have a five-way primary to determine who will face Stauber.