Sen. Heidi Heitkamp Apologizes For Outing Survivors of Domestic Abuse and Sexual Assault in Campaign Ad


Over the weekend, Democratic Senator Heidi Heitkamp ran a full-page ad in several North Dakota newspapers directed at her Republican opponent Kevin Cramer. The ad, framed as an open letter signed by survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, or rape, stated: “As North Dakotans who have experienced this absolute terror firsthand and survived these crimes—we are all prairie tough.” The names of 127 people, some identified only by their initials, were attached.

It was a clear rebuke to Cramer, who in the wake of Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation had described #MeToo and the outrage over the Supreme Court nominee’s alleged history of sexual assault and misconduct as a “movement toward victimization” that has gone “too far.” Describing women like his wife and daughters as “pioneers of the prairie,” they are, Cramer said to the New York Times, “tough people” who, I imagine, in his estimation are able to brush off sexual assault like pesky flies.

But several of the women whose names were included in Heitkamp’s campaign ad had never wished to be publicly outed in this manner. Lexi Zhorela, a 24-year-old hairdresser who lives in Bismarck, told the Associated Press she was “furious” at her inclusion. As she describes it, she had never meant for her story, which she had previously only shared with a small group of people, to become public. “I didn’t want it blasted for the world to see,” she said. Zhorela was not the only woman who was upset at being listed as a signer of the open letter—as reported by the Bismarck Tribune, another woman who was included in the ad wrote in a Facebook post that “a lot of these people listed, including me, did not give anyone permission for our names to be posted.” (Incidentally, she is not, as the Tribune noted , a survivor of domestic abuse.)

When Heitkamp voted against the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, she was lauded for her courageous stance in support of survivors of sexual assault. “Heitkamp, a white woman under enormous political pressure in a right-leaning state, chose to make clear who she believes the real victims are,” wrote Irin Carmon in The Cut. In Heitkamp’s statement announcing her no vote, she made her opposition clear: “Our actions right now are a poignant signal to young girls and women across our country.” She continued: “Survivors should be respected for having the strength to share what happened to them—even if a generation has since passed. They still feel the scars and suffer the trauma of abuse.”

Recent polls have Heitkamp trailing Cramer by as many as 10 points. In the troubling season we find ourselves in, one in which women’s stories of sexual assault have been used as so much political fodder, it’s no surprise that a politician—even one who, like Heitkamp appears to sincerely wish to support survivors of assault and abuse—would be eager to capitalize on these stories. But not everyone has the desire to open up their personal history for public consumption, and it is deeply, deeply fucked up that Heitkamp’s campaign, in a rush to make up ground with voters, did not think to ask what the women they named wanted.

On Tuesday, Heitkamp issued an apology. She is, she wrote, “in the process of issuing a retraction, personally apologizing to each of the people impacted by this and taking the necessary steps to ensure this never happens again.”

Not much more can be done, but still, it doesn’t quite feel like enough.

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