FOUR years after his defeat of Eric Cantor, then the second most powerful Republican in the House of Representatives, in the primary for Virginia’s 7th congressional district, Dave Brat (pictured) has himself become the target of an uprising. National Democrats, energised by voters’ distaste for President Donald Trump, have their sights on the seat, which was last won by a Democrat in 1963. 

The 7th district, which covers some of the suburbs of Richmond and surrounding countryside, includes a Trump-friendly, thinly populated farm belt where Mr Brat is certain to win comfortably. But the vote-rich suburbs could pose more of a challenge. Leafy neighborhoods south and west of Richmond are becoming less reliably Republican, a trend that has accelerated since Mr Trump became president.

These bedroom communities—white, affluent and moderate, in part, because of a burst of out-of-state newcomers—are in two counties that tipped Democratic in last year’s governor’s election. In 2016, Henrico fell to Hillary Clinton. Chesterfield was barely carried by Mr Trump. And the 7th District, overall, went Republican for governor by the skimpiest margin.

This has convinced national Democrats, who need 24 seats to take back the House of Representatives in the mid-terms in November, to make a strong play for the 7th District. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is targeting the seat, committing cash and services to the party’s nominee, who will be selected in a primary in June. By the early spring, Dan Ward, a former adviser to the State Department and Abigail Spanberger, formerly a CIA operative, had each raised more than $724,000.  Mr Brat had raised $860,000. But it is emotion, rather than money, that will probably shape the campaign.

Mr Brat is unapologetically conservative, expressing his views in a manner that alternates between a lecture and a bark. He is a stout defender of the president, depicting Robert Mueller’s investigation into possible collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign as “deep-state stuff”. Hostile on immigration and hawkish on the latest tax cuts, he is a favorite of conservative media and often avoids the mainstream press—voters, too, except in situations he can control.

All this has contributed to a long list of complaints against Mr Brat by an increasing number of voters, many of them women. Most notable among his critics is an organisation called the Liberal Women of Chesterfield County, which emerged, almost overnight, thanks to outrage over Mr Trump.

These women, skilled in the person-to-person communications that can quickly mobilise neighborhoods, were initially infuriated by Mr Brat’s complicity in Republican efforts to unravel President Barack Obama’s marquee initiative, the Affordable Care Act. They stalked Mr Brat, online and in-person, occasionally to comical effect. At one point, he complained that “women are in my grill no matter where I go.”

When Mr Brat does communicate with voters, it is in settings that he can control: a radio chat show, the host which is one of Mr Trump’s Virginia organisers, or the op-ed page of his hometown’s editorially conservative newspaper.

This has not gone unnoticed by the sorts of voters who should be with Mr Brat: centrist Republicans who are pro-business and socially moderate. Because Mr Brat comports himself as Mr Trump’s mini-me, they are looking elsewhere or considering staying home in November.

Such Republicans were generally comfortable with Mr Cantor and willing to occasionally look the other way over his accommodations with the party’s restive right wing. They include William Royall, a former Republican operative-turned-direct mail marketer and art impresario who is supporting Ms Spanberger. He does not conceal his hostility for Mr Brat. “I don’t like his politics,” Mr Royall told the Washington Post recently. “I still consider myself a Republican but the party has gone in another direction.”

Republicans like Mr Royall would have to defect on a grand scale for Democrats to prevail in Virginia’s 7th District. Its boundaries, even after they were reset by judges to eliminate racial gerrymandering in an adjacent district, still favour Republicans. But Mr Brat’s success in making enemies of presumed friends has Republicans wondering if the 7th district might soon turn blue.