North Dakota Democrat Heidi Heitkamp was already in a tough battle to retain her Senate seat in a state that President Donald Trump won by 36 points. And now a mistake by her campaign could be costing her more votes.
Earlier this week Heitkamp’s campaign published a newspaper ad that was meant to serve as a rebuttal to her Republican opponent, Kevin Cramer, but ended up naming sexual assault survivors without their permission or misidentifying them altogether. Cramer has come under fire for his comments about the #MeToo movement in The New York Times. He questioned whether “you’re just supposed to believe somebody because they said it happened.”
“They cannot understand this movement toward victimization,” Cramer said, referencing the women in his life, including his mom, wife, and daughters. “They are pioneers of the prairie. These are tough people whose grandparents were tough and great-grandparents were tough.”
The letter was supposed to show Cramer “what prairie tough looks like.” It included signatures from more than 120 women who were supposed to be survivors of “domestic violence, sexual assault, or rape.” But once it went public, some women came forward saying they either weren’t survivors or had never given permission for their information to be used.
The campaign quickly apologized. “We recently discovered that several of the women’s names who were provided to us did not authorize their names to be shared or were not survivors of abuse,” Heitkamp said in a statement. “I deeply regret this mistake, and we are 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.”
But that may not be enough. “I don’t know what she [Heitkamp] could do that would make it better,” Lexi Zhorela, a self-identified liberal and one of the women named in the ad, told CNN. “I know that’s why a lot of the people in this situation are reaching out to seek legal counsel because of, you know, what she did is wrong.” She went on to call the mistake “reckless” and said, “You know, the names that didn’t want to be out there are already out there for the world to see. You can’t really retract that; the damage is done.”
And, as of now, Heitkamp has lost her vote, according to CNN.
Heitkamp has been vocal in her support of survivors, including voting no on the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. She has also spoken out about her own mother’s experience. “I think it’s wonderful that his [Cramer’s] wife has never had an experience, and good for her, and it’s wonderful his mom hasn’t,” she said previously to the Times. “My mom did. And I think it affected my mom her whole life. And it didn’t make her less strong.”
It remains to be seen how this misstep will ultimately affect Heitkamp’s poll numbers, but the issue is almost certain to come up in her first debate with Cramer Thursday night.