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Some high-profile immigration hardliners lost Tuesday. But exit polls show Americans are still split on the issue

Updated 7:45 PM ET, Wed November 7, 2018

(CNN) - They were known as immigration hardliners long before President Donald Trump took office. And the defeats they suffered in Tuesday's midterm elections sparked swift declarations of victory from immigrant rights groups.

• Republican Kris Kobach -- who became a national celebrity in some circles for his attempts to help cities kick out undocumented immigrants -- lost his bid for governor of Kansas.

• Lou Barletta -- who also drew national notoriety for such an effort as the Republican mayor of Hazleton, Pennsylvania, and enlisted Kobach's help to defend it -- lost his bid for a US Senate seat.

• Republican Dave Brat -- who has championed efforts to limit immigration and won in 2014 after making it a focal point of his campaign -- lost his re-election bid for Congress in Virginia.

"Tonight was a stunning rebuke for the leaders of the hardline, anti-immigrant movement, with their champions losing badly," Todd Schulte, president of FWD.us, said in a statement as results came in.

"Hardline anti-immigrant ideologues have promised for more than two decades that they would win elections if they finally adopted their restrictionist policies, but tonight's results were a complete disaster for many of the most critical and longtime leaders of the anti-immigrant movement."

Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice, said voters had delivered "an electoral rebuke of candidates who ran on racism and xenophobia instead of racial unity and solving problems."

But groups in favor of restricting immigration also claimed they'd scored victories in Tuesday's election.

"The American people voted out of office a large number of low-enforcement, high-immigration politicians of both parties," Roy Beck, executive director of NumbersUSA, said on Twitter.

He pointed to the defeats of Democrats such as Sen. Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota and Sen. Claire McKaskill in Missouri, who he said have consistently supported more foreign workers and less immigration enforcement and "lost re-election to challengers who pledged a much different approach."

Some other notable victories for immigration hardliners:

Former GOP Rep. Ron DeSantis, who campaigned as a supporter of Trump's immigration policies, won his bid for governor in Florida.

Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, who has long advocated immigration crackdowns and drawn fire for controversial remarks about immigrants, won re-election for a ninth term.

For his part, Trump showed no sign that he'd shift his approach to immigration after Tuesday's vote. He told reporters Wednesday that candidates who embraced his strategy had excelled at the polls.

"The people of the country are very happy with the job that I'm doing," Trump said, "and you know, looking ahead to 2020, one of the things they want so much is security. They want security, both at the border. They want it with our military. They want it with law enforcement. They want it with ICE."

Even though Trump placed immigration front and center in his closing argument leading up to Tuesday's vote, most voters didn't rank it as the top issue facing the country.

About a quarter of voters said immigration was the most important issue, according to exit polls. Of those voters, 75% were Republicans.

About half of voters (46%) said Trump's immigration policies are too tough. A third said they're just right, and another 17% said they're not tough enough.

That's an indication that even though some high-profile hardliners lost at the polls, policies they've championed are still likely to be part of the conversation going forward, with Trump continuing to lead the charge.


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