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Jon Greenberg
By Jon Greenberg May 29, 2018

Tennessee GOP's slam on Democrat Phil Bredesen's jobs record overlooks Great Recession

The U.S. Senate race in Tennessee is starting to heat up. Phil Bredesen, the leading candidate for the Democratic nomination, lofted an ad touting his accomplishments as governor. The Tennessee Republican Party fired back that on jobs, Bredesen’s track record wasn’t so rosy.

"While Phil Bredesen was in the governor’s office, the number of Tennesseans on unemployment nearly doubled," the GOP posted on its website May 23. "He is backtracking to change his weak record, but Tennesseans won’t be fooled by misleading ads."

The post included numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics to back up the claim.

When Bredesen became governor in January 2003, the state had about 149,000 unemployed people. When he left in January 2011, it had about 296,000.

As the Republicans said, that’s about double.

Before we get into the caveats, we should note that there’s a flaw in the Republican language. The post talked about "the number of Tennesseans on unemployment." That’s different from the number of unemployed people, because some might not have been eligible for unemployment benefits in the first place, and some might have seen their benefits run out.

The state labor market reports track the number of new claims for unemployment each month, but not the total number of people getting benefits at a given point in time.

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As for the point about unemployment growth, the Republican post leaves out the enormous impact of the Great Recession. That wasn’t something under Bredesen’s control; it was a global economic collapse that struck every state and pretty much every nation worldwide.

In the time Bredesen was in office, the national unemployment rate went from 5.8 percent to 9.1 percent. The rate in Tennessee went from 5.1 percent to 9.5 percent; worse than the national average, but the overall trend was the same.

This chart shows shifts in the unemployment rate under Bredesen.

The GOP post also overlooks that before the recession, Bredesen oversaw a net increase in jobs. The state had 2.76 million jobs when he took office, and four years later in 2007, it had 2.94 million, a gain of about 180,000 jobs.

Even as the automobile sales were falling in 2008, on Bredesen’s watch, Volkswagen committed to building a new plant outside Chattanooga, Tenn., a move that ultimately created 2,000 new jobs.

Our ruling

The Tennessee Republican Party challenged Bredesen’s track record on jobs, saying that the number of people on unemployment doubled during his time as governor.

Government statistics show that the number of unemployed did rise by that amount. But the statement suffers from two flaws: It ignores the impact of the Great Recession which was beyond the control of Bredesen or any state leader. And it assumes that every unemployed person is getting unemployment benefits, which is not accurate.

The numbers leave out important context. We rate the statement Half True.

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Half True
"While Phil Bredesen was in the governor’s office, the number of Tennesseans on unemployment nearly doubled."
In a party website blog post
Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Our Sources

Tennessee Republican Party, Setting the record straight, May 23, 2018

Phil Bredesen for Senate, Matters, May 23, 2018

Bureau of Labor Statistics,Local area unemployment statistics: Tennessee, accessed May 24, 2018

Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development, Labor market reports, accessed May 24, 2018

National Governors Association, Phil Bredesen, accessed May 24, 2018

Times Free Press, New Bredesen ad touts economic successes as governor, May 23, 2018

Email interview, Laura Zapata, spokeswoman, Bredesen for Senate, May 25, 2018

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Tennessee GOP's slam on Democrat Phil Bredesen's jobs record overlooks Great Recession

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