MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Independent Minnesota political groups are spending a fortune on television ads this campaign season.

They’re branding GOP gubernatorial candidate Jeff Johnson as a “tea party Republican.”

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The ads are relentless, and ominous.

“I’m a teacher, but I’m also a mom,” said Laura Livermore, who is featured in one of the ads. “That’s why I’m so worried about tea party Republican Jeff Johnson.”

Only one problem: Johnson says he’s not a tea party member.

“I’m not a member, but I don’t know you have membership, nor do they endorse by the way, I’ve been told that,” Johnson said. “Nor did I ask for their endorsement.”

But the reality is Johnson appeared numerous times at tea party meetings, documented by the online political blog Politics.mn.

And a Democratic video at a tea party event shows that he calls himself a tea party member, and sought tea party “endorsement.”

“There is this perception that the media has created that tea parties are kind of wacko. And we are not,” Johnson said. “And I say ‘we,’ and I proudly say ‘we.'”

He sought the support of conservative tea party members when he ran for the state Republican endorsement.

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Now, he’s running for the political center and avoiding a tea party label.

“If I can’t get every faction of the Republican Party as a starting point, I can’t win,” he said.

Minnesota’s thriving Tea Party Alliance says it believes in “free markets, fiscal responsibility and adherence to the Constitution.”

And Jack Rogers, Tea Party Alliance president, told WCCO: “I believe Jeff Johnson shares our core beliefs.”

So, does Jeff Johnson believe what the tea party believes?

Yes.

Does he consider himself a “tea party Republican”?

Based on his own words, yes.

Democrats are trying to make “tea party Republican” a bad thing. The tea party has conservative views on minimum wage, unions, government spending and other positions that are held by a large number of Republicans.

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But Johnson needs to expand his reach beyond those voters.