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Poll: GOP's Joni Ernst leads in Iowa Senate race. Big, if true

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(Read caption) US Senate candidate Joni Ernst listens to Iowa Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds at the Des Moines County Republican headquarters in Burlington, Iowa, in June. A new poll suggests she might be surging.

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Whoa, is Republican Senate candidate Joni Ernst surging ahead in Iowa? That’s what a new Quinnipiac poll shows. The survey puts state Senator Ernst in front of her Democratic opponent, US Rep. Bruce Braley, by 6 percentage points among likely voters.

Ernst’s edge is powered by a whopping 17 point advantage among men, and a 7 percentage point lead among independent voters, a key slice of the electorate.

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“The tale of independent voters tells you all you need to know about the Iowa Senate race,” said Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac poll, in a statement.

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This is big, if it truly indicates an Iowa trend. Other recent major polls of this race have showed either Representative Braley ahead, or tied.

The RealClearPolitics rolling average of surveys still has the Iowa Senate contest as a virtual dead heat, with Braley up by 0.2 points – even after taking the Quinnipiac results into account.

And Iowa could be the key to which party controls the Senate after the 2014 midterms. Right now, the struggle for the chamber seems to be centering on three races which polls show could flip either way. These are Kansas, which has turned into an unpredictable race between a Republican and an Independent; Alaska, where the RCP rolling average has the GOP candidate up by 1.3 points; and Iowa.

As we wrote yesterday, GOP chances of winning a Senate majority have declined in recent weeks. Right now the 2014 midterms look like a coin flip in this regard. The Washington Post’s Election Lab forecasting model just ran 10,000 simulations of the Senate outcome, for instance. They came back dead even.

“The battle for control of the Senate is a pure toss-up,” writes Post political reporter Aaron Blake today.

All this explains why the new Quinnipiac survey is kind of a big deal. Is it a harbinger? That would mean Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky could begin measuring drapes for the majority leader’s office. Or is it an outlier? That would mean majority leader Harry Reid (D) would not have to move.

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Much will depend on the accuracy of Quinnipiac’s model of Iowa “likely voters.” Determining who is most likely to actually cast ballots is an art as much as a science, particularly for midterm elections. “Likely voter” is not a hard-and-fast measure, such as “registered voter.”

According to Quinnipiac, the Iowa electorate in November will consist of 41 percent independents, 28 percent Republicans, and 26 percent Democrats.

“Q-Pac seems a bit too hot for Rs this cycle, but was pretty good last cycle. So who knows,” tweeted RealClearPolitics senior elections analyst Sean Trende on Wednesday.