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Claims fly in ads in competitive Tennessee Senate race

October 4, 2018
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Democratic candidate Phil Bredesen and Republican candidate Marsha Blackburn speak at the 2018 Tennessee U.S. Senate Debate at Cumberland University Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2018, in Lebanon, Tenn. (Lacy Atkins/The Tennessean via AP, Pool)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — As more attention is focused on Tennessee’s increasingly competitive Senate race, a flood of attack ads continues to flood people’s screens.

Republican U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn faces former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen in the upcoming November election, a race that has gained national attention as the GOP holds a narrow control over the Senate.

Three ads released by a handful of influential political groups this week seek to cover a wide range of issues circling the race, including the handling of sexual misconduct cases to zoning in on health care votes.

Here’s some of the biggest claims highlighted in the ads and a look if they hold up under scrutiny:

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What the ad says: When Bredesen was governor, his office shielded top aides accused of sexual harassment, even intervening in a case to move his top lobbyist to another agency. But it didn’t end there. Sexual misconduct cases skyrocketed under his watch. So what did Bredesen’s administration do? His office shredded the evidence.” -- Republican National Committee

Does the ad hold up?

In 2005, The Associated Press reviewed more than 600 workplace harassment investigation files that were collected when Bredesen was first elected in 2002.

AP found documents were only shredded in high-profile cases. Bredesen eventually put a stop to shredding notes in harassment cases, but it’s true he picked up the moniker “Governor Shredesen” from bloggers and morning radio talk show hosts around that time.

The AP also found that sexual and workplace harassment records were on pace to almost double over 2004 — several years into his first term — but at the time Bredesen countered harassment reporting was up rather than the actual number of harassment incidents.

Bredesen said at a debate last month that he’s “glad that the number of reported case where people came forward increased in that process.” Bredesen added his administration was trying to protect people so they could talk about their experiences.

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What the ad says: “Congresswoman Blackburn voted to give members of Congress health care for life, but she won’t guarantee that those of us who aren’t congressmen can have good health care.” -- Majority Forward

Does the ad hold up?

The ad’s sponsor points to a 2012 article from The Hill to back up this claim, which cites an unnamed Democrat staffer making the warning lawmakers would “restart the perk of lifetime government health care for themselves” should Congress repeal former President Barack Obama’s signature Affordable Care Act.

However, if ACA is ever repealed, congressional members and aides would have to return to buying insurance through the Federal Employee Health Benefit Program.

It’s a decades old federal health program that allows federal employees to choose various health insurance plans with employees paying a share of the premiums and the government, their employer, picking up the rest of the tab.

The federal health plan doesn’t guarantee coverage for life because Medicare kicks in at age 65. And if you ever stop paying for the plan, the coverage stops — just like most private insurance options. Also, if a congress member ever lost an election or if an aide chose to leave their job, the federal health plan no longer applies to them.

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What the ad says: “As governor, Phil Bredesen let the opioid crisis spiral out of control. On Bredesen’s watch, the opioid death rate doubled. Now we learn Bredesen owns up to $1 million of stock in a pharmaceutical company at the root of the crisis. While Tennessee families have suffered, Phil Bredesen has profited.” -- Senate Leadership Fund

Does the ad hold up?

Tennessee’s increase in opioid overdose deaths coincided with a national spike, though Tennessee was more hard hit than the U.S. average. There were five Tennessee opioid-related deaths per 100,000 people when Bredesen became governor in 2003, compared to 4.5 nationally, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Tennessee death rate grew to 10.1 in 2011, when Bredesen left office, compared to 7.3 nationally, the data show.

The group behind the ad points to Bredesen’s Johnson & Johnson stock, valued between about $500,000 and $1 million, with about $15,000 to $50,000 in dividends, according to his current candidate financial disclosure. In 2002, when Bredesen was running for governor, he reported holding investments of at least $250,000 in 71 companies, including Johnson & Johnson. The wide-ranging company and its opioid-manufacturing subsidiaries have faced lawsuits over claims that they contributed to the opioid epidemic.

In March, Bredesen told reporters that his list of disclosed investments is “all the sort of thing that any investment adviser you talk to or treasurer or someone like that would say, ‘Yeah, that’s a sensible, realistic list for somebody to hold. There’s nothing weird in there.’” Bredesen’s disclosure shows he has between $92.2 million and $378.1 million in investment assets and income, which would likely put him in the top 10 wealthiest members of Congress if he’s elected.

The ad follows a couple of commercials that have attacked Blackburn over opioids. Majority Forward is blasting her co-sponsorship of a 2016 law criticized for weakening federal authority to curb opioid distribution, pointing to her donations from pharmaceutical interests. Blackburn has noted that the law passed Congress unanimously. Blackburn, who has called for addressing any “unintended consequences,” says the Drug Enforcement Agency was supposed to report back to Congress in April 2017 about whether the law wasn’t working, but has missed its deadlines. Bredesen says he wants to repeal that law.

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