Dennis Romboy, Deseret News
Republican Jonathan Johnson, left, listens FreedomWorks president and CEO Adam Brandon endorses him for governor at the state Capitol on Tuesday, May 24, 2016.

SALT LAKE CITY — A national group that advocates conservative principles threw its support Tuesday behind Republican Jonathan Johnson's campaign to unseat GOP Utah Gov. Gary Herbert.

FreedomWorks, which has a history of fighting for or against candidates in Utah, intends to help Johnson's ground game to get voters to the June 28 primary election.

"When you look at who's going to be the best steward, the best visionary to manage and to lead the state of Utah as it grows, it's an obvious choice for us at FreedomWorks and the 25,000 activists we represent to endorse Johnson," FreedomWorks President and CEO Adam Brandon said at the state Capitol.

Johnson said FreedomWorks is an organization that "gets it" because it's willing to fight for conservative principles and not just give them lip service.

Herbert campaign manager Marty Carpenter called the endorsement "another desperation move" from a candidate trailing in the polls.

"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," Carpenter said.

Brandon said FreedomWorks, based in Washington, D.C., only fights in states where it has a solid base.

"You can call me an outsider all you want, but you can't call the 25,000 people who are active and voting in this state outsiders," he said.

Johnson said FreedomWorks principles are not Washington-based but are Utah principles. The group promotes less government, lower taxes and more economic freedom.

"They resonate with Utahns. They resonated with the state delegates at the convention, he said, noting his 10-point win over the governor.

FreedomWorks backed Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, in 2010, and last fall spent $48,000 on TV ads to tout his conservative record as he faces re-election. The group also unsuccessfully tried to oust Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and former Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson in 2012.

In accepting the endorsement, Johnson called on Herbert to agree to debate, noting that Republican leaders in 18 rural counties asked the two candidates to engage on issues meaningful to those areas. Johnson said he accepted but Herbert has been silent.

"This despite being available for any fundraiser any time," Johnson said, again hitting the governor on his comment to lobbyists that he is "Available Jones" to meet with donors. "Any time for a price."

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KSL invited Herbert to debate Johnson on television and radio during a meeting with the KSL and Deseret News Editorial Board Monday. The governor was noncommittal.

"We'll talk about it as a campaign," Herbert said. "You all know that if you're behind, you want to have as many debates as you can. If you're ahead, you want to have as few debates as you can. That's just political strategy."

FreedomWorks' strategy for Johnson will consist mostly of voter outreach and getting people involved in his campaign, Brandon said. The group doesn't intend to use TV or radio ads.

"This race will not be won on television," Brandon said.

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