Republican state Rep. Jim Knoblach abruptly ended his campaign for re-election on Friday, a decision that will not only shake up the battle for control of the House next year, but could also reshape who helms powerful committees in St. Paul.
Knoblach, an eight-term representative from St. Cloud, ended his campaign hours after his attorney spoke with MPR News about a forthcoming story about his daughter, who said he inappropriately touched her for years. He denies the allegations, but in a statement said he was dropping out because he didn't want to put his family through six weeks of extreme scrutiny and stress in the campaign.
And his attorney said he won't get a fair hearing in the "#MeToo era," which continues to play a huge role in this year's midterm election. His abrupt exit — less that two months before the Nov. 6 election — could make it impossible for Republicans to keep his seat.
Here's how we got here, and here's what could happen next:
What were the allegations that caused him to end his campaign?
Almost two years ago, Laura Knoblach posted on Facebook allegations that she was molested by her father from the age of nine into early adulthood. While she removed her post, she eventually shared her story in painful detail with MPR News.
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She said her father would often crawl into her bed and lay with her and kiss her neck and bite her ears. She said that kind of behavior, including more than 30 instances of grinding against her body in the kitchen of their home, continued until age 21. The allegations were investigated by local law enforcement in 2017. No charges were filed, but Laura Knoblach provided MPR News with investigative materials and accounts of how she tried to alert her family, friends and authority figures to the behavior for more than a decade.
MPR News was preparing a report on it when Jim Knoblach suddenly abandoned his re-election campaign last week, just hours after his attorney issued a strong denial on the lawmaker's behalf.
What is Knoblach's role at the Capitol?
Knoblach is not resigning immediately, but he's not running for re-election or planning to return to the Capitol next year. If Republicans manage to maintain their current control of the state House, they will have to replace Knoblach in his role as chair of the House Ways and Means Committee. It's one of the most powerful positions in the chamber, and Knoblach had deep knowledge of the state budget and a say in every spending measure that moved through the House.
Another search is already underway for a new House Republican majority leader, after Rep. Joyce Peppin stepped down from the role and resigned to take a new job this summer.
What could this mean for the fall election, where Republicans are trying to keep control of the state House?
Republicans have a comfortable majority in the chamber. Democrats need to flip 11 seats to take control next year, and they believe they have a shot. Knoblach's central Minnesota seat, which has switched between parties several times in recent elections, was already on their radar. Real estate agent Dan Wolgamott is the Democratic candidate, and he's been on the trail for months.
Knoblach's exit comes too late to get his name off the ballot, so technically, he would still win the race if he gets the most votes. In that situation, he could decline to take the seat or other members could refuse to seat him. If he isn't seated, that would force a special election for the seat next year. But more likely, the decision gives Democrats the upper hand in the district and allows them to divert valuable resources to districts that are closer.
So, what are the options for Republicans if they want another candidate in the race for this St. Cloud seat?
They could go to court to try to seek to have Knoblach's candidacy invalidated, but the law isn't in their favor. He'd have to be declared ineligible due to death or catastrophic illness or determined to be living outside the district. If for some reason that happened, the votes in the race wouldn't be counted and a February election would be scheduled.
The easier path, relatively speaking, would be to get someone to run as a write-in. But that's a tall order, and early voting is already underway.
Is anyone lined up to run as a write-in candidate?
MPR News contacted Republican campaign staffers about their plans after the news broke Friday, but they haven't responded yet. So, unless someone has quietly launched a campaign, there isn't an alternative Republican candidate yet.
This really highlights how the #MeToo movement has become a big campaign issue, doesn't it?
Knoblach's attorney Susan Gaertner told MPR that even though the legislator strongly denies the accusations, it would be difficult to sway public opinion in the current environment. Two other state legislators have already resigned in the face of sexual harassment allegations. A third accused lawmaker, Republican Rod Hamilton, is running again and is under investigation by the House for allegations that he made sexual advances and kissed a woman advocating at the Capitol.
There's also a special election for a U.S. Senate seat once held by Democrat Al Franken after he resigned following misconduct claims.
It's also become a flashpoint in the attorney general's campaign. DFL nominee Keith Ellison has been accused of domestic violence by an ex-girlfriend, which he disputes.
Knoblach's sudden end to his campaign could spare his Republican caucus of having to answer for him during the campaign's final weeks. In the only statement on the allegations from House Republicans, Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, thanked Knoblach for his "many years of service to the state of Minnesota. I support his decision to suspend his re-election campaign to focus on his family."