[cnn-photo-caption image= http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/images/11/12/art.cantor.gi.jpg caption="Rep. Eric Cantor, R.-Virginia, is the House Minority Whip."]WASHINGTON (CNN) - The small army of candidates seeking the GOP nomination in Virginia's fifth congressional district - several of them backed by Tea Party activists - have spent months accusing the National Republican Congressional Committee of supporting state Sen. Robert Hurt in the primary, a charge the NRCC denies.
But now another, more prominent target is in the conservative crosshairs: Eric Cantor, the most powerful Virginia Republican on Capitol Hill.
Cantor's political action committee and campaign fund have given a combined $7,000 to Hurt, and the House Minority Whip helped Hurt raise money in Washington last December. That support has infuriated other Republicans seeking the nomination, and not just because they view Hurt as too liberal to be the face of the party against vulnerable first-term Democrat Tom Perriello this November.
Though Cantor hails from Richmond and represents the congressional district abutting Perriello's, several of the Republican primary candidates said in interviews with CNN this week that they view the five-term congressman as a Washington insider meddling in local politics. That criticism has echoes of the contentious special election in New York's 23rd congressional district last year, when conservative activists refused to support a moderate Republican candidate backed by national party officials.
"We would like Cantor to stay out of the fifth district and let the people make the decision on his own," said Laurence Verga, one of seven candidates gunning for the nomination. Cantor's Washington fundraiser, Verga said, "gives Hurt a tremendous leg up in fundraising in these difficult times."
Verga is not the only Republican grumbling. James McKelvey, who joined the race six months ago after being inspired by a Tea Party rally, said he knows little about Cantor or his record. But he said Cantor "is making a huge mistake" by backing Hurt.
"Hurt is a moderate and I think he is by far the weakest candidate we have out there," said McKelvey, who also suggested that he might run as third party candidate if Hurt wins the nomination.
Teacher-turned-candidate Feda Morton said Cantor has the right to endorse who he wants, but said Republicans are "tired of having candidates handpicked and shoved into offices."
"I am disappointed that Cantor decided to get in behind Hurt," Morton said. "I thought he was more conservtive and principled than that."
But Morton could not point to a single Cantor vote or policy proposal that she disagreed with. Indeed, Cantor has a 96 percent lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union, a point eagerly made by Hurt's campaign.
"Eric is a solid principled conservative leading the fight against the government takeover of every aspect of American society," said Hurt consultant Chris LaCivita. "To deny that is either naivete or stupidity."
Aides to Cantor did not respond to requests for comment.
UPDATE: Ray Allen, Jr., a senior strategist with Cantor for Congress, said it's not surprising Cantor is involved in the race given his familiarity with Republican politics throughout the state. He called Hurt "a strong conservative."