By Trey Mewes, Mankato Free Press - ROCHESTER — President Donald Trump praised 1st Congressional District candidate Jim Hagedorn and cautioned Minnesotans against voting for Democrats during an at-times raucous rally inside the Mayo Civic Center in Rochester Thursday night.
“This is supposed to be a Democrat state?” Trump said at the beginning of his speech. “I don't think so. They've got a very big surprise coming for them.”
Trump's visit comes as Hagedorn, a longtime Republican from Blue Earth, vies with Democrat Dan Feehan of North Mankato to replace U.S. Rep. Tim Walz in Congress.
Hagedorn claimed during the rally Democratic victories would turn the country sharply to the left and pledged to act as a reinforcement for a conservative agenda if elected.
Trump lent his support to several Minnesota Republican candidates, at one point calling state Rep. Karen Housley to the stage to speak on how she would defeat Tina Smith for Smith's seat in the Senate. U.S. Rep. Jason Lewis joined Hagedorn onstage, while gubernatorial candidate Jeff Johnson and attorney general candidate Doug Wardlow spoke to the crowd of thousands earlier in the day.
At one point the president blamed Democrats as "truly the party of crime" for opposing the administration's immigration policies. He also chastised Democrats for opposing federal court judge Brett Kavanaugh's nomination to the Supreme Court. And he attacked the media several times during the speech, at one point claiming "if they were on our side we would win for 1,000 years."
Earlier in the day, Trump attended a private Republican fundraiser in Minneapolis.
With a little more than five weeks before the Nov. 6 election, Trump's visit to Minnesota highlights how important the state could be in deciding the House majority. Pundits on both sides see the First and Eighth Congressional District races, in southern and northeast Minnesota, as important toss-up races.
Dozens of people were already in Rochester Thursday morning. By mid-afternoon, thousands of people clogged Rochester's downtown area waiting in line to see the president. By 3 p.m., the line to get into the rally stretched about a half-mile long and wound behind a parking ramp over to a walking trail near the Zumbro River. Rochester officials say about 10,000 people packed the civic center with another 1,000 watching outside.
Street vendors took advantage of the long lines to hawk various Trump-related merchandise, from clothing to scarves and the popular red “Make America Great Again” hats. One vendor exclaimed “Don't be a Democrat, get yourself a Trump hat.”
Ben Harris, 19, of Rochester, decked himself out in an American flag-laden suit for the occasion. He was glad to see Trump pay a visit to a traditionally blue-leaning state in support of Republican candidates.
"You think of Minnesota as such a liberal stronghold," Harris said. "And that, I think, just goes to show he actually cares about the average citizen."
Harris sees Trump as a better president than Barack Obama or George W. Bush because of Trump's stance against terrorism and trade.
John O'Rourke, 53, of Wells, has voted Republican in the past but supported Obama in 2008 because he thought the Democratic candidate would make good on his campaign themes of hope and change.
“There was no change and there was no hope,” O'Rourke said. “And I just got sick of it. Sick of the establishment.”
O'Rourke believes Trump has done a good job shaking up the status quo in Washington D.C. He plans to vote Republican to give the Republican-controlled Congress more support to accomplish Trump's goals.
“He's trying to get rid of the Deep State,” said Trishel Adams, 50, also of Wells. “I'm glad (Trump's) running again.”
Hundreds of protestors marched through downtown Rochester Thursday afternoon. Several protestors stationed themselves near Broadway Avenue, Rochester's north-south corridor, three blocks away from the Civic Center. They said they kept a few blocks away from the rally for safety reasons.
Julie Fryer, 52, and her 15-year-old son Nicholas, of Chatfield, were among the protestors picketing the rally. They said they had planned to come down since Trump's visit was announced last week.
“We believe that Trump is an embarrassment to people,” Nicholas Fryer said.
Julie said it was important for protestors to show up even though Trump's visit would likely boost Republican numbers in the 1st Congressional District.
“We are doing everything we can to support Feehan,” she said.
Feehan joined Peggy Flanagan, the Democratic lieutenant governor candidate, in door knocking in the Rochester area Thursday as part of a state DFL push in response to the president's rally.
““Donald Trump’s return to Minnesota is a clear sign that he and Minnesota Republicans are worried about the direction Minnesota is trending,” DFL Chairman Ken Martin said in a statement.
Feehan was unavailable for comment.