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By Sean Gorman March 12, 2012

McDonnell says 7 of 10 states with lowest unemployment rates have Republican governors

Gov. Bob McDonnell says nobody creates a better environment for jobs than Republican governors.

"Seven out of the 10 states with the lowest unemployment rates (have) Republican governors," McDonnell said at Politico’s Feb. 24 State Solutions Conference. "So I’d just like to say, on an empirical basis, that approach that Republicans are using is working. And I’d certainly compare that to what Democratic governors are doing."

McDonnell, chairman of the Republican Governors Association, made the claim during a debate with Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, chairman of the Democratic Governors Association.  He defined the Republican approach as keeping a lid on taxes, spending, regulations and unionization.

We wanted to see if GOP governors really do lead most states with the nation’s lowest  unemployment rates and, if they do, whether that means Republican chief executives are better at creating and protecting jobs than their Democratic colleagues.

Let’s start with some basic math: Twenty-nine governors are Republicans, 20 are Democrats and one is an Independent. So under the law of averages, about six of the top 10 states should be run by GOP governors.

Now, let’s turn to the unemployment rates. Tucker Martin, McDonnell’s director of communications, said his boss’s figures came from the Bureau of Labor Statistics listing of state unemployment rates in December 2011, the latest month for which statistics were available.

Of the 10 states with the lowest unemployment rates, North Dakota, Nebraska, South Dakota, Iowa, Wyoming, Utah and Virginia have Republican governors. New Hampshire, Vermont and Minnesota have Democratic governors.  

We found that the Top 10 list includes three states where the GOP tenure has been fairly short. In Iowa, a Republican governor took office in January 2011 after 12 years of Democratic governorships. In Wyoming, a GOP governor took office in January 2011 after eight years of a Democratic governorship. Both states were  also on the list of 10 lowest unemployment rates in December 2010, when a Democrat was governor.

And in Virginia, McDonnell came to office in January 2010 after eight years of Democratic governors. Virginia had the nation’s 10th lowest unemployment rate in December 2009, its last full month under Gov. Tim Kaine. Virginia still ranks 10th today.

Conversely, we looked at the 10 states that had the worst unemployment rates in December 2011. Under McDonnell’s logic, there should be few Republicans and many Democrats in this tier.

Six states in the Bottom 10 have Republican governors: Michigan, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, and Nevada. Three have Democratic governors: Illinois, North Carolina and California. One state, Rhode Island, has an an independent governor.

Economists have told us time and again that governors have marginal effects on economies of their states.

Anne Alexander, an economist at the University of Wyoming, largely credited her state’s 5.6 percent unemployment rate to oil and natural gas exploration and tourists visiting Yellowstone National Park and the Grand Tetons. And because more than half of the land in Wyoming is owned by the federal or state government, she said there are many public jobs managing the land and wildlife.

"Generally speaking, as an economist, I tend to think that any particular executive has less influence over the state of the economy than we might like to give them credit for -- either for good or for bad," Alexander said.

North Dakota has the nation’s lowest unemployment rate, at 3.3 percent. Stan Herren, a economist at North Dakota State University, attributed the prosperity to a solid state economy based on energy exploration and agriculture. Politicians, he said, have provided some help by adopting supportive business policies.

"If you want to put a number on it, it (the economy) is probably 90 percent of it and 10 percent is the policies," he said.

Our ruling

McDonnell said Republican governors head seven out of 10 states with the lowest unemployment rates, providing proof that the GOP has a better record on jobs than Democrats.

He’s right on the numbers, but on shaky ground when he insists Republican stewardship has brought those results.

The fact that seven of the 10 states with the lowest unemployment rates are led by Republicans is hardly evidence that GOP governors trump Democrats in creating jobs. Three of those seven states, including Virginia, were also in the Top 10 when they were were headed by Democrats a year or two ago.

We rate the claim Half True.

Featured Fact-check

Our Sources

Politico, "State solutions conference," Feb. 24, 2012. (statement is 18.5 minutes into video).

E-mail from Tucker Martin, a spokesman for Gov. Bob McDonnell, Feb. 29, 2012.

Bureau of Labor Statistics,  "Unemployment rates for states," December, 2011.

Republican Governor’s Association website, accessed March 7, 2012.

Interview with Aparna Mathur, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, March 1, 2012.

Interview with Tim Hagle, associate professor in political science at the University of Iowa, March 5, 2012.

Interview with Jerry Deichert, director of the Center for Public Affairs Research at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, March 5, 2012.

Interview with David Flynn, chairman of the economic department at the University of North Dakota, March 6, 2012.

Interview with Stan Herren, professor of economics at North Dakota State University, March 6, 2012.

Interview with Anne Alexander, economist at the University of Wyoming, March 6, 2012.

Interview with Robert C. Dauffenbach, director of the Center for Economic and Management Research at the University of Oklahoma, March 6, 2012.

Associated Press, "Democrats on defense in 2012 governors’ races," Feb. 27, 2012.

National Governors’ Association website, accessed March 8, 2012.

Bureau of Labor Statistics, Local Area Unemployment Statistics, accessed Feb. 29, 2012.

University of Wyoming report, "Wyoming’s state of the space," May, 2009.

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