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FreedomWorks for America, a tea-party-aligned advocacy group, endorsed Jonathan Johnson for governor Tuesday, vowing to mobilize its thousands of members in Utah to defeat Gov. Gary Herbert.
"The direction of our country is being settled before our eyes," said FreedomWorks President and CEO Adam Brandon. "The question here for Utah is do you guys want to be a visionaries? Do you want to take this growth and redefine conservatism, not just for the state of Utah, but for the entire country?"
The group said Herbert's policies are "inconsistent with conservatism" and cited tax hikes passed during Herbert's administration including raising the gas tax and a property tax, the latter of which went to help rural schools as well as his support to use Medicaid funds to cover 125,000 low-income Utahns and his defense, until recently, of Common Core standards for Utah schools.
"FreedomWorks had the foresight six years ago to endorse Mike Lee at the beginning of his first political campaign, and I'm honored and excited to join their ranks," Johnson said.
The Herbert campaign said turning to the Washington, D.C.-based FreedomWorks shows the Johnson camp is flailing.
"This is another desperation move from a campaign trailing significantly in the polls," said Marty Carpenter, Herbert's campaign manager. "Jonathan Johnson is now doing exactly what he told Utahns he wouldn't do, turn to Washington to solve his problem. Utahns don't need outside groups to pop in every four years with their slash-and-burn campaign tactics, telling us how to vote."
Johnson, meanwhile, welcomed the endorsement.
Johnson said he doesn't necessarily consider himself to be a tea-party candidate, despite the backing of the tea-party group, but he does have an approach of less government, lower taxes and a libertarian philosophy that aligns with FreedomWorks' vision.
Johnson has pledged not to raise taxes, promised to hold a special legislative session in his first year to repeal "needless" laws and said he would push for term limits for governor, attorney general, auditor and treasurer.
In past elections, FreedomWorks has spent generously on Utah races, helping to elect Sen. Mike Lee, but it also spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in failed efforts to knock off Democratic U.S. Rep. Jim Matheson and $1 million against Sen. Orrin Hatch.
Johnson's campaign manager, Dave Hansen, ran Hatch's successful re-election bid in 2012 and at the time branded FreedomWorks as outsiders who he wished would "get the hell out of the race."
"Voters don't like them, don't want them here and don't believe their lies and distortions," Hansen said of FreedomWorks at the time.
In the Johnson race, Brandon said FreedomWorks would not be pouring money into the campaign, but would encourage the 25,000 FreedomWorks members to volunteer and vote for Johnson in the June 28 Republican primary against Herbert.
"Our model is based on our activists. We only fight in states where we have a good solid base," Brandon said. "You can call me an outsider all you want, but you can't call the 25,000 people who are active and voting in the state outsiders."