U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan visited several Twin Cities businesses Monday, touting tax cuts and technical careers while also talking up the chances of two fellow Republicans facing competitive congressional races this year.

"We think Minnesota is a great opportunity for us this year as a party," Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, said in an interview after talking about taxes in a closed-door meeting with Rep. Erik Paulsen and employees at Best Buy's headquarters. "I'm just here to help out the team."

Ryan also stopped at Burnsville's Ames Construction, where he heard about the need for more skilled workers at a meeting with Rep. Jason Lewis and a small group of business and trades representatives.

Lewis and Paulsen are in hotly contested races to hang on to their seats representing the Second and Third Congressional districts, respectively. Ryan, who is not seeking re-election after three years in one of Washington's most powerful jobs, praised Lewis at the Burnsville event, calling him "one of the most effective freshmen we have in Congress."

Ryan highlighted Lewis' effort to reauthorize the Perkins Act, which funds career and technical education programs. In pushing for changes, Lewis has proposed helping more students earn credits from technical colleges while they are still in high school. Ryan, who has advocated federal law changes that move people from "welfare to work," said that could help businesses fill skilled worker positions with more high school graduates.

"We have a good economy, we've got good jobs that are being offered, and there are actually careers to be had, but we need people," Ryan said.

Lewis, a first-term representative with a background in conservative talk radio, faces a rematch in November with former St. Jude Medical Inc. executive Angie Craig.

Craig, a Democrat, attacked Lewis and Ryan in a statement Monday, saying Lewis voted to raise health care costs and "gut" protections for people with pre-existing conditions.

"During his term in Congress, Lewis has proven that he does not have Minnesota families' best interests in mind," she said.

Lewis beat Craig in 2016 by less than two percentage points, after an expensive and closely watched race to represent much of the suburban southeast metro and areas to the south.

Meanwhile, Paulsen has represented a large swath of the west metro for almost 10 years. He is up against first-time political candidate Dean Phillips, a philanthropist, businessman and Phillips Distilling Company heir. Phillips is looking to buck the trend of Third District residents electing Republicans to the U.S. House.

While voters in the district repeatedly backed President Barack Obama and supported Hillary Clinton over Trump, they have opted for Republican congressmen for nearly six decades. Paulsen said Minnesotans are ticket-splitters who don't vote for the party but rather the person, and "want their elected officials or their leaders to be results-oriented."

"And I've got a good track record of doing that," he said.

Paulsen has trod a careful middle ground on issues like immigration and gun rights in his divided district. He supported restraining orders on gun owners in certain circumstances and a ban on bump stocks. And he broke ranks with Ryan in May, signing a petition to circumvent House leadership and force a vote on a number of immigration bills. He's also tried to separate himself from Trump, citing Monday trade tariffs and the policy of separating children from their parents when they cross the U.S. border illegally, which Trump later reversed after national outcry.

"When the president is wrong on policies, I've directly said so," Paulsen said.

Even voters who oppose Trump will support Paulsen, Ryan said, citing the Minnesotan's work in Congress and his name recognition after five successful campaigns for Congress.

"Erik Paulsen is known for reaching across the aisle; Erik Paulsen is known for getting things done, he's known for being an effective member," Ryan said, citing opioid and human trafficking legislation and being chair of the joint economic committee.

Outside Best Buy headquarters, where Paulsen and Ryan met with an employee group, about 10 protesters disagreed that Paulsen has represented the moderate district well.

"He pretends to be moderate. Look at his votes," said Mia Olson, a Bloomington teacher and member of Indivisible MN03, a progressive group that formed after Trump was elected. "We feel he's misrepresenting himself."

She called the Best Buy event a "PR stunt" and said most people are not benefiting from the tax bill.

Inside Best Buy, Ryan said the policymakers in the closed-door meeting discussed Republican tax changes and trade policy, and they answered some policy questions from the audience — and some trash talk about Ryan's home-state Green Bay Packers.

In February, Best Buy announced it was giving employees a one-time bonus of $1,000 to full-time employees and $500 to part-time employees as a result of the corporate tax cuts. There were more than 200 people at Monday's meeting, part of an occasional series of speeches to employees, with past speakers including Sen. Amy Klobuchar.

"Erik Paulsen held an event today that didn't allow cellphones, computers, cameras, guests or even live questions from those in attendance," challenger Phillips said in a statement. "While it is not surprising given his record of avoiding his constituents, it is not the kind of representation our district expects — or deserves."

While in the Twin Cities, Ryan also attended a morning fundraiser benefiting Minnesota Republican candidates.

Jessie Van Berkel • 651-925-5044 Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141