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New poll gives GOP edge in battleground states. How significant?

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Gerry Broome/AP

(Read caption) Sen. Kay Hagan of North Carolina, seen here in Goldsboro, N.C., is one of the vulnerable Democratic incumbents running in red or purple states this fall.

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There’s fresh evidence that Republicans are inching toward winning control of the Senate in November.

The bipartisan George Washington University Battleground Poll released Wednesday has the GOP ahead on the generic congressional ballot by 4 percentage points, 46 to 42 percent. More ominously for Democrats, in states where there is a competitive Senate race, Republicans lead the generic ballot by 16 percentage points, 52 to 36.

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“Though the American public is as divided as it has been all year, as we head into the 2014 general elections the advantage among likely voters is flowing toward Republicans,” said Christopher Arterton, George Washington University professor of political management and poll director.

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The generic congressional ballot has long been a general marker for how parties stand with the public heading into important votes. It asks a simple question: Are you more likely to vote for a Democrat or a Republican to represent your congressional district in the fall?

Respondents don’t get the names of the people running to specifically represent their area. Voters’ feelings about these individuals might sway their answer to the generic question about Democrats versus Republicans, so candidate identifications are left out.

Republican strategists are particularly pleased about the party’s advantage in this new poll because the generic ballot often skews toward Democrats. That’s simply because there are usually more Democrats than Republicans in the US. About 44 percent of US adults identify with or lean toward the Democratic Party, according to a recent Gallup survey. Thirty-nine percent lean toward or identify with the GOP.

The Republican edge in the Battleground survey thus may stem from particular political circumstances which indicate a (possible) impending GOP Senate takeover. For instance, President Obama’s relatively low approval ratings have been dragging down his party for months. The new Battleground Poll finds that fully 61 percent of respondents disapprove of Obama’s job performance.

The much larger GOP lead in states with close Senate races also likely reflects the fact that this year Democrats are defending a number of endangered incumbents in red or purple states, such as Louisiana and North Carolina.

But this is just one poll, remember. The RealClearPolitics average of generic congressional ballot surveys still has Democrats ahead, ever so slightly, at 0.5 percent.

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Given the margins of error involved, that’s a virtual tie. If nothing else, these numbers suggest that the GOP may win the Senate, but it’s not headed for a blow-out so-called “wave” election victory.