As exit polling continues to trickle in from Tuesday's elections, political leaders are putting their own spin on voter attitudes -- with Republicans charging that blacks and Hispanics can no longer be taken for granted by Democrats as two monolithic voting blocs.
“The key strategy that the Democrats have had for at least 10 years is to scare black folk into believing that the Republicans are the party of racists -- that dog did not hunt in these elections,” said Niger Innis, spokesman for the Congress on Racial Equality in New York.
"It provides Republicans with a great incentive," he added.
Rosalind Gold, a spokeswoman for the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, said that Hispanic loyalty to either party couldn't be taken for granted, that these voters “are still making their decisions about their political allegiances.”
Republicans credit Hispanics with helping to re-elect GOP Govs. Jeb Bush in Florida and Rick Perry in Texas.
But Democrats are quick to point out that Latinos still come out strongly for their party -- they helped to elect Bill Richardson and Janet Napolitano to governorships in New Mexico and Arizona respectively.
In Florida, 60 percent of Hispanics cast votes for the president’s brother Jeb, and 50 percent voted for Republican Gov. George Pataki, according to the Republican National Committee, which also said that Perry was re-elected in Texas with one-third of the Hispanic vote.
Latinos are also being credited in part with the senatorial win of Republican Wayne Allard in Colorado.
“The fact of the matter is we made gains,” said Rudy Fernandez, spokesman for the RNC. “This is part of a long-term effort by President Bush and the Republican Party.”
At least one Latino think tank says it has crunched its own exit poll numbers, and that Republicans shouldn’t pop the cork on those champagne bottles just yet.
Antonio Gonzales of the William C. Valasquez Institute in Los Angeles said Latinos came out big for Democrats throughout the states, and that their numbers show 87 percent of Latinos voted for Democrat Tony Sanchez, Perry’s challenger.
Despite Perry’s win, he lost big in the mostly Mexican-American Hidalgo County and the Lower Rio Grande Valley, as well as Sanchez’s hometown of Webb County, Gonzales said.
He also added that Hispanics also came out en masse against an English-only public school curricula referendum -- a largely Republican issue -- in Colorado. It lost by a wide margin.
“A big Latino turnout in a Republican year breaks this conventional wisdom that Hispanics were turning more Republican in the Bush years,” Gonzalez said. “You can forget that.”
Meanwhile, low black turnout is being blamed in part for the close upset loss of Sen. Max Cleland, D-Ga. Black-dominated precincts in Georgia reported 13,000 fewer voters than in 2000.
Low black turnout is also being blamed for Democrat losses for governor in Florida and Maryland, and for the Republican win of the open Senate seat in North Carolina.
Political analysts like Innis say the low turnout in black-dominated precincts in areas with close races -- as well as an estimated low black turnout overall -- suggest that blacks are tired of the race baiting and are thinking more independently of the Democratic machine to which they are supposedly wed.
“I think that black folk staying home and not voting as heavy as in 2000 is a vote of confidence for Republicans and a vote of lack of confidence in Democratic demonizing,” suggested Innis, who said the Republicans need to continue their outreach to prove to blacks that “they have their best interest at heart.”
But not everyone agrees that low turnout equaled gains for Republicans.
“It may be that black turnout was off, but on the other hand, there is no evidence yet that there is," complained Davis Bositis, senior political analyst for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a think tank devoted to black issues. “We don’t have the data yet. Before making post-mortems, it might be a good idea to at least look at the body.”
National black leaders like Rev. Jesse Jackson and Kweisi Mfume, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, have already established that the Democratic Party is to blame for the low black turnout at the polls.
“The Democratic Party did not properly address or cultivate the base that could have led it to victory,” said Jackson. “That was a huge tactical mistake. We lost critical races by the margin of uniformed, uninspired black voters.”
Mfume said the Democrats took blacks for granted, but he does not believe that means the GOP has made any inroads with them.
“The Democrats have assumed for a long time what they were doing was enough, and Republicans have assumed for a long time there was no use in trying. Both parties are wrong,” he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report