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Knoblach could still win the race he left weeks ago

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Rep. Jim Knoblach
Rep. Jim Knoblach, R-St. Cloud, on Feb. 26, 2015, during the state House session at the Capitol in St. Paul.
Jennifer Simonson | MPR News 2015

Paul Brandmire knows his state representative, Jim Knoblach, suspended his re-election campaign weeks ago.

It didn't sway Brandmire's vote. He's already cast an early ballot — and voted for Knoblach anyway.

Brandmire knows it's a long shot that Knoblach, who ended his campaign amid allegations by his daughter of inappropriate behavior toward her since childhood, will win the House District 14B race.

And even if Knoblach gets the most votes, Brandmire doesn't expect him to accept the House seat.

Still, he wasn't willing to vote for Knoblach's DFL opponent, St. Cloud real estate agent Dan Wolgamott, even though he thinks Wolgamott would "probably do a good job."

"Right now, both houses are kind of razor-thin margins," said Brandmire, who is active in the local Republican Party and a candidate for St. Cloud City Council. "So if Wolgamott wins, then the Democrats have one more seat in the House than they would have had otherwise."

Campaign signs for Rep. Jim Knoblach.
Most of the campaign signs for Rep. Jim Knoblach were removed when he announced he was ending his campaign for re-election. But a handful remain, like this one in front of a St. Cloud residence on Monday.
Kirsti Marohn | MPR News

Knoblach ended his campaign last month after his adult daughter went public with allegations that he touched her inappropriately during much of her childhood.

Knoblach has called the allegations "extremely hurtful and untrue." He said he didn't want to subject his family to six weeks of stress and scrutiny, and was ending his campaign so he could work toward family healing.

Knoblach's announcement came on the day early voting started — too late to remove his name from the ballot. So at least in name, he remains a viable choice for voters.

Stearns County Republican Party chair Sue Rice said there are no plans to organize a campaign for a write-in candidate.

If Knoblach receives the most votes in the election, it will be up to him to decide whether to accept the seat, Rice said. It's also possible that his House colleagues would refuse to seat him.

If Knoblach wins but resigns the seat, state law requires the governor to call a special election, according to a spokesperson for the Minnesota Secretary of State's Office.

Knoblach's attorney, Susan Gaertner, declined to respond to questions about his political future. A call to Knoblach's home this week was not returned.

An election victory by a candidate no longer seeking the office would be unprecedented in Minnesota, but not out of the realm of possibility in a legislative district that has swung back and forth between Republican and Democratic control.

Knoblach defeated former state DFL Rep. Zach Dorholt by about 450 votes two years ago. In 2014, he beat Dorholt by just 69 votes.

For some local Republicans, a special election would be preferable to handing Wolgamott a victory. Others say the allegations against Knoblach haven't changed their opinion of him.

Dan Wolgamott, DFL candidate in the House District 14B race.
Dan Wolgamott, DFL candidate in the House District 14B race.
Courtesy of Dan Wolgamott

Carol Rupar has knocked on doors and handed out campaign literature for Knoblach in past campaigns. She's the Republican Party chair in Benton County, a portion of which lies in District 14B.

Rupar said she's known Knoblach for a long time. And although she doesn't live in his district, she'd cast her ballot for him if she could.

"I have supported him in the past. I think he's a really decent guy," Rupar said. "I would vote for him because I think he's been a good legislator."

She called the situation "unfortunate."

"The people that live in his district are going to have to decide if they are going to continue to support him," Rupar said. "His name is on the ballot."

For Wolgamott, the turmoil of the past month hasn't made much difference. He said his approach to the campaign "hasn't changed one bit."

"I haven't won anything yet," Wolgamott said. "We're still going to forums and going to community events and doing the voter outreach to focus on the issues that people are facing."

Wolgamott doesn't want to spend much time talking about the allegations against Knoblach, other than saying he believes anyone who comes forward with abuse or assault allegations deserves to be heard and respected.

"Honestly, people are talking about it and asking about it," he said. "But ultimately, there's just so many issues facing St. Cloud, facing Minnesota. That's what we're really focusing on."