02:18 - Source: CNN
Joni Ernst makes history in Iowa

Story highlights

Republican Joni Ernst defeated Democrat Bruce Braley in Iowa's Senate race

The win gives Republicans another win in a state President Obama carried in 2012

Ernst takes the seat being vacated by retiring Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin

(CNN) —  

Republican Joni Ernst has won the race for Iowa’s U.S. Senate seat held by retiring Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin, defeating Democratic challenger Bruce Braley, according to a CNN projection.

The win in the Hawkeye State, which voted for President Barack Obama twice, joins a list of Republican pickups that have swept the party into the Senate majority.

National Democrats were initially confident they would hold the seat but Ernst surprised them with a determined and effective campaign. The importance of the seat was evident by the millions of dollars outside groups poured into advertising, making it one of the most expensive races of the cycle.

The polls were neck and neck through much of the campaign with Ernst appearing to get a small lead over Braley recently.

Ernst was a little-known Iowa state senator when she burst on the national political scene during the GOP primary, declaring in a TV ad that if elected she would cut pork spending in Washington the way she castrated pigs growing up on an Iowa farm. Conservatives were thrilled.

“Washington is full of big spending,” she said smiling into the camera. “Let’s make ‘em squeal.”

The ad set the tone for Ernst’s energetic and appealing campaign. It helped her get past some voters’ concerns that as a tea party favorite she was too conservative to take the seat held for five terms by progressive Democratic stalwart Sen. Tom Harkin.

The popular Harkin campaigned for Braley but couldn’t make up for several gaffes and missteps the four-term lawmaker made during the campaign that surprised and disappointed his supporters in Iowa and Washington.

At one point, he appeared to belittle both Iowa farmers and the state’s senior senator, Republican Chuck Grassley. He described Grassley, who is in line to chair the Judiciary Committee if the GOP takes over the Senate, “as a farmer from Iowa who never went to law school.”

Braley was also criticized when it was revealed his family had filed a complaint against a neighbor whose chickens were crossing onto his property.

Ernst raised the issue at a recent debate.

“You elect to sue a neighbor over chickens that came onto your property. You’re talking about bipartisanship, how do we expect, as Iowans, that you will work across the aisle when you can’t walk across your yard?” she said.

At the same debate, Braley argued Ernst would side with the far right wing of the GOP Congress.

“I’m a bridge builder not a bridge burner,” Braley said. “Sen. Ernst would have voted to shut down the federal government. She’s called President Obama a dictator and thinks impeachment should be on the table”