The women incorrectly identified as survivors of “domestic violence, sexual assault, or rape” in an open letter from Sen. Heidi Heitkamp’s re-election campaign to her Republican opponent Rep. Kevin Cramer are “beyond furious,” “confused” and “upset.”
And now, days after the ad ran, they want answers.
“A lot of women’s privacy was just thrown out there for the world to see,” said Keeley Beck, a 24-year old from Bismarck, North Dakota who said she never gave consent to be included in the ad. “You don’t really know what situation people are in, so that could have caused a lot of damage to a lot of people.”
The Heitkamp campaign, looking to attack Cramer for suggesting “tough people” do not identify with the national conversation around sexual assault and the treatment of women, ran an open letter that slammed his comments and was signed by 127 women. Shortly after the letter published, women began to come forward to say they were either included without their permission or were not survivors of “domestic violence, sexual assault, or rape,” as specified in the letter.
The blunder couldn’t come at a worse time for the vulnerable Democratic senator, who is running for re-election in a state that President Donald Trump won by 36 percentage points in 2016. It’s less than three weeks before Election Day and Heitkamp is not talking about trade, health care or taxes, but instead is blanketing North Dakota media with emotional interviews taking responsibility and looking to redirect questions about how this will impact her political future. Right now, that future looks bleak: Recent polls, including those before this controversy, have found Cramer with a sizable lead over Heitkamp.
“I don’t think anyone is perfect in the world and sometimes when you are on a big stage you can make big mistakes,” she said on Tuesday. “And I think our campaign made a big mistake and we need to own it and we need to fix it.”
While the senator has said the buck stops with her, the campaign staffer who was in charge of putting together the open letter is no longer with the campaign, according to Julia Krieger, a spokeswoman for re-election bid. Krieger did not provide the name of the staffer and would not say whether the staffer was fired or resigned.
Beck, a mother of one who is getting married next month, was waiting to hear from Heitkamp before she used the campaign misstep to pass judgment on the senator.
The two talked on Tuesday afternoon, in what Beck described as a “short, sweet and to the point” conversation.
“She was apologetic, but she didn’t have answers for me,” Beck reflected. “I feel like she has plenty of time to say something or to give me something.”
As painful as the ordeal has been for Heitkamp and Democrats who had hoped her unique brand would allow her to pull off another victory in a deep red state, it has been more painful for the women either outed in the ad or misidentified as survivors.
Some are hesitant to talk, not wanting their name to continue to be “drug” through the media.
“I’m not even a survivor and my name was included in the ad,” said a woman who asked for anonymity. “I had family and friends calling me all concerned. It was humiliating.”
Others, though, are prepared to fight.
One group of a dozen women — led by Shylah Forde, Megan Stoltz and Alexandria Delzer, three of the misidentified women — told CNN on Tuesday evening that they are looking for “a lawyer who will take our case” because the ad has “interfered with, or downright ruined, our lives.”
They wrote: “Survivors of assault who had taken care to avoid the subject were suddenly bombarded by questions asking them to explain to their loved ones why their name appeared on this list. Women who have never been assaulted spent the day reassuring loved ones of their safety.”
“Our privacy was violated on this day, and we deserve closure,” they added.
What the women want more than anything, they said, is answers.
According to more than a dozen interviews with women impacted by this controversy, the growing consensus is that someone pulled names from a Facebook post and added them to the open letter to Cramer without getting consent.
Delzer posted a call to action on her Facebook page, asking for women to be part of a “letter being circulated among survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and rape responding to Cramer’s comments.”
“We are looking for women are willing to sign there (sic) name (or initials) and list their hometown in North Dakota to include as part of the letter/ad,” reads the post, that ended by telling readers another woman would validate all signatures that ended up on the open letter.
Below the post, Delzer tagged 12 other women in one comment and another 12 in a subsequent comment. All 24 women appeared on the open letter to Cramer, most in the same exact order they appeared in Delzer’s comments.
“I am kind of confused about how this all happened after I tagged my friends in a post,” Delzer told CNN. “All I did was share the post on Facebook and I tagged some of my Facebook friends on Facebook and someone, no one will tell me who, took the names that I tagged and put them in the letter.”
She added: “I just now feel like my name is being dragged through the mud. I just don’t know how it got to this point.”
Delzer also spoke with Heitkamp on Tuesday. “She seemed pretty sincere about apologizing,” Delzer said, but didn’t provide her with any answers.
She added, dejected: “All I did was share a Facebook post.”
That has led these women to believe that someone who remains nameless took those names posted by Delzer and added them to the letter without mistakenly and, in some cases, without asking for their approval.
Krieger, the campaign spokeswoman, said that Heitkamp and the campaign have acknowledged that “this process was clearly flawed.”
“We owe it to the women mistakenly included in the ad to find out what went wrong and we are still working to piece that together internally to make sure this never happens again,” she added, but declined to say whether that is what happened.
Lexi Zhorela, a 24-year old self-identified liberal from Bismarck, was one of the women posted by Delzer.
“I am beyond furious,” she said, adding that seeing her name on a public list was “humiliating.”
Zhorela has planned to vote for Heitkamp in November. “That has changed,” she concluded.