Strong DFL turnout among Northfield residents and college students in Thursday's special election paid off for the party, which picked up a state Senate seat with a political newcomer and gained the party a veto-proof majority in the Senate.

DFLer Kevin Dahle, a high school teacher who has never held public office, defeated former Rep. Ray Cox, R-Northfield, to win the seat that Sen. Tom Neuville, R-Northfield, held for 17 years before being appointed to a Rice County judgeship.

The Republican Party had banked on Cox taking the torch from Neuville, but Cox's experience-- two terms in the House, 15 years on the school board and five on the planning commission -- apparently wasn't enough.

"Clearly, I don't think they foresaw that Ray Cox would have the problems that he did," Steven Schier, a political science professor at Carleton College, said Friday.

And Cox, a moderate Republican who said he is probably done with politics, said Friday that the makeup of the district is changing, with the area around Northfield in particular becoming more liberal.

Dahle was boosted by the student vote at Carleton and St. Olaf colleges, despite predictions that few undergrads would turn out for a special election held just as they returned to campus from winter break.

Political stars from both parties showed up in the district to help their candidates: Gov. Tim Pawlenty spent time with Cox on the campaign trail, while U.S. Senate candidate Al Franken spoke at DFL rallies Wednesday night at Carleton and St. Olaf.

In the four Northfield precincts where most students vote, Dahle won nearly four times as many votes as Cox. His advantage there accounted for about two-thirds of his 1,600-vote victory margin.

But Mike Kennedy, Senate DFL caucus campaign director, said that while the students gave Dahle "a lot of momentum going into Election Day," the victory did not hinge on the student vote.

Dahle won 55 percent of the votes, compared to Cox's 42 percent. The election drew about 12,000 people to the polls -- about a quarter of registered voters in the district, according to the Minnesota Secretary of State's office.

Cox held the lead over Dahle before precinct results came in from Northfield, where, he said, recent turmoil on the City Council may have intensified voter interest in politics. But at any time, he said, "I would defy anyone to find a community that's more politically engaged than Northfield."

Now that Dahle has won the seat, "It's not going to be easy for Republicans to take [it] back," Schier said.

The win gives the DFL the two-thirds majority it needs in the 67-member Senate to override vetoes by the governor. But a veto-proof majority won't change Pawlenty's relationship with the Legislature, said Brian McClung, the governor's spokesman.

Schier pointed out that the DFL is still several seats short of the mark in the House. "If there were veto-proof majorities in both chambers, then it would be different," he said. "Then I think you would see some change in policy, but that hasn't happened."

He added that "it will encourage Pawlenty to work very closely with the House Republican caucus to be sure they're on the same page with major issues to prevent veto-proof majorities."

Sarah Lemagie • 952-882-9016