By Gary Robertson
RICHMOND, Va., June 8 (Reuters) - U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, one of the most powerful Republicans in Washington, is under fire on the home front, where a Tea Party-backed challenger aims to stop him from running for an eighth term representing his Virginia district in Congress.
David Brat, a college economics professor, has run against Cantor from the right, saying the incumbent has failed to advance conservative values on such hot-button issues as immigration, the national debt and healthcare.
Tuesday's Republican primary in central Virginia could give the conservative Tea Party wing a chance to come back from a string of high-profile primary losses and rebuild momentum ahead of November's congressional election.
"Eyes around the country will certainly be on the Cantor race as the next key measure of the Tea Party movement going forward," said Stephen Farnsworth, a political analyst at the University of Mary Washington.
Brat, who teaches at Randolph-Macon College in the district just north of Richmond, has challenged Cantor in particular over immigration.
"Eric Cantor is saying we should bring more folks into the country, increase the labor supply - and by doing so, lower wage rates for the working person," Brat said in a recent interview. "His policies make no sense."
But in a recent campaign mailer, Cantor boasted of killing legislation that offered amnesty to "illegal aliens."
Brat supporters booed Cantor last month at a local Republican meeting where both appeared, with the challenger criticizing the incumbent for refusing to meet for a debate.
Cantor retorted angrily, saying, "It is easy to sit in the rarefied environs of academia, in the ivory towers of a college campus with no accountability and no consequence, when you are throwing stones at those of us who are working every day to make a difference."
'SICK AND TIRED'
Supporters of Brat say they have soured on Cantor.
"We are sick and tired of Republicans who campaign on conservative principles and betray us when they get elected," Laurence Nordvig, executive director of the Richmond Tea Party, said during a recent Brat fundraiser.
Despite that ire, experts said the odds are still with Cantor, who won 80 percent of the vote in his 2012 primary. Farnsworth, the political scientist, said he was unaware of any polling data on potential voters ahead on Tuesday's match-up.
On the money front, Cantor has a commanding edge.
In the fundraising period from April 1 to May 21, the incumbent raised $449,000 in the pre-primary period, and reported $1.5 million in cash on hand. Meanwhile, Brat raised $117,000, and reported nearly $84,000 in the bank.
Tea Party activists may have a better chance for an upset in the Mississippi Senate race between incumbent Thad Cochran and challenger Chris McDaniel, which heads to a runoff vote on June 24.
Even if Brat loses, the Tea Party may feel a lift from having challenged a powerful incumbent, Farnsworth said: "Even if Cantor wins, he'll be looking over his shoulder for what might happen two years from now." (Additional reporting by Ian Simpson; Editing by Scott Malone and Susan Heavey)