A primary election Tuesday will set the stage for the Jan. 3 special election to replace Sen. Tom Neuville, R-Northfield, who stepped down when Gov. Tim Pawlenty appointed him to a judgeship in Rice County last month.

The Republican primary pits a former state representative against the mayor of Henderson and a former New Prague school board member:

• Former Rep. Ray Cox of Northfield served two terms before losing his seat in 2006. Cox, who owns a construction company, served 15 years on the Northfield school board and cites education as a key issue.

• Keith Swenson is a contractor who has been mayor of Henderson for 18 years. He said he's running because of frustration with partisan politics and state cuts in local government funding.

• Rod Tietz, a real estate broker from a large local family, served eight years on the New Prague school board.

Tietz's top priority is eliminating the need for school operating levies, which he said divide communities and distract school boards from the task of improving student performance.

The DFL and Independence Party each have one candidate in the primary. Kevin Dahle, a Northfield High School civics teacher and union leader, has been endorsed by the DFL, while Vance Norgaard, an organic farmer, is running for the Independence Party.

The Republican Party, which endorsed Cox, is banking on him to take the torch from Neuville, who was first elected to the Senate in 1990.

The need to hold a primary to narrow the slate of Republicans "caught the party off-guard," Cox said. Tietz said he filed as a candidate too late to be considered for Republican endorsement, while Swenson said he "bucked" the party. A fourth Republican candidate withdrew after Cox was endorsed.

Five DFL candidates initially stepped up for the special election, but four withdrew, leaving the field clear for Dahle.

Neuville won six terms in a district that includes Northfield, a college town, and a swath of more conservative territory around Belle Plaine, Le Center and New Prague. The eastern half of the district, which includes Northfield, has earned a reputation for close votes in recent years. In 2006, Cox lost his seat to David Bly, DFL-Northfield, by 60 votes.

Sarah Lemagie • 612-673-7557