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Opinion Voters may have an unwelcome surprise waiting for Dave Brat

Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.) in his office in Washington. (Amanda Voisard for the Washington Post)
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Virginia Democrats have had high hopes for 2018 since election night in 2017, when they swept the state’s top three offices for the second consecutive time and came whisper-close to taking the House of Delegates.

Those hopes are about to get even higher, and there’s a bit of data to back them up.

A new Wason Center poll shows Democrats leading Republicans in a generic ballot test 45 percent to 33 percent.

No surprise — the poll showed the president’s approval rating at 35 percent, which sounds bad enough, but at least he’s ahead of congressional Republicans, who managed just 28 percent.

It’s when the poll takes us to individual congressional districts that the numbers get really interesting.

When asked which party’s candidates they would vote for were the election held today, voters picked a generic Democrat in nine of Virginia’s 11 congressional districts. Only Republican Reps. Tom Garrett in the 5th and Morgan Griffith in the 9th have an advantage.

We should expect Democrats to do well in the seats they already hold: Bobby Scott in the 3rd, Don McEachin in the 4th, Don Beyer in the 8th, and Gerry Connolly in the 11th.

We should also expect Republicans to struggle in the 10th district, where Republican Rep. Barbara Comstock has been a Democratic target since winning her first term in 2014, and in the 2nd, where Republican Scott Taylor is a freshman defending his seat for the first time.

But there are two surprises: the 1st and 7th districts.

In the 1st Congressional District, Republican Rob Wittman should be a lock for reelection. In 2016, he carried the district with almost 60 percent of the vote, almost 7 percentage points ahead of Donald Trump.

This year, Wittman’s competition doesn’t appear formidable. His potential opponents have little money, and the 1st is not one of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s targeted contests.

But if the generic numbers from the Wason poll are at all accurate, perhaps it should be. In the 1st, voters prefer a Democrat to a Republican 51 percent to 30 percent. And in their preference for which party voters want to control Congress after the November election, the gap widens to 59-32.

All of the standard disclaimers apply: This is a poll of registered voters. The margin of error in individual congressional districts is very high (plus or minus 10 points for the 1st).

But for Wittman, chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee on seapower and projection forces, the headline data should be concerning.

They are much more so for Republican Rep. Dave Brat in the 7th district.

Brat the Cantor-slayer won reelection in 2016 by more than 15 percentage points – comfortably ahead of Trump.

This year may be much different. The Wason Center poll shows a generic Democrat is preferred 59 percent to 31 percent, and voters want a Democratic-controlled Congress 64- 31 percent.

Again, all polling disclaimers apply. But there other factors at work against Brat, particularly in the suburban Richmond portions of the district.

The first: The DCCC has targeted the 7th as a possible pick-up. That means the eventual Democratic nominee will (or should) have national resources at his or her disposal.

The second: The GOP lost three suburban Richmond House of Delegates seats in 2017 — seats that overlap the 7th Congressional District. One was an open seat. The others saw incumbent Republicans John O’Bannon and Manoli Loupassi defeated.

Farther down the ballot, in a special election for the Henrico Board of Supervisors, a Democrat captured an open seat, giving the party its first board majority in 36 years.

For Brat, these four contests should be warning signs that the vote-rich portions of the 7th are in an ornery mood. They disliked Cantor and sent him packing in 2014. But they aren’t keen on the GOP brand in general these days.

If there’s a real surprise coming for Republicans in November, it will be the 7th District’s voters who deliver it.