Share story

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Sen. Heidi Heitkamp apologized Tuesday for misidentifying victims of domestic violence, sexual abuse and rape who were listed in a recent North Dakota newspaper ad aimed at her opponent.

The Democrat, who is facing a tough race for re-election, said in a statement that she had recently learned that several of the women named in the ad either hadn’t authorized it or are not survivors of abuse.

“This was incompetent. It was wrong. It should have never happened,” Heitkamp told Rob Port, a conservative blogger and frequent Heitkamp critic on his radio talk show Tuesday. “It was a very flagrant error of the campaign and I own it.”

The flap over the newspaper ad comes at a sensitive time for Heitkamp, who has been trying to explain to voters why she opposed confirming Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. The vote has emboldened Republican challenger Kevin Cramer in his effort to label the incumbent as too liberal for the conservative state.

Heitkamp, who was clearly emotional on the talk show, apologized several times for the ad, which she said she hadn’t seen before publication. She said she was reaching out to those affected by it but would understand if they didn’t want to talk to her.

The ad that ran Sunday in several North Dakota newspapers was an open letter to Cramer, criticizing comments he made on Kavanaugh’s confirmation . It was signed by more than 125 people, though some just listed their initials.

Heitkamp said she was investigating how her campaign obtained the names. She said they may have come from a “Facebook feed” that was forwarded to the campaign.

“I think the victims deserved an explanation on how this happened,” she said.

Several women listed in ad criticized Heitkamp on social media for listing their names.

Lexi Zhorela told The Associated Press that she learned of the ad Monday night

“I’m furious,” the 24-year-old hairdresser and single mother from Bismarck said. “I know I’m not the only woman hurt by this.”

Zhorela said she was listed in the ad because she had been tagged by a friend in a Facebook post who knew she had been the victim of sexual assault.

“I have only shared my story with a couple of people in confidence,” she said. “I didn’t want it blasted for the world to see.”

Zhorela said she had intended to vote for Heitkamp in November but will “definitely not now.”

Heitkamp’s campaign did not answer questions Tuesday about how the error occurred, or how many of the people listed in the ad were misidentified.

Cramer called his opponent’s ad a “revictimization of victims.”

“This is what happens when desperate people do things for their own personal political gain,” Cramer told the AP. “She proved a point that her personal politics matter more than someone’s personal pain.”

Cramer supported Kavanaugh. Heitkamp voted against his nomination.

Heitkamp cited Kavanaugh’s temperament in announcing her decision. She also said she believes the woman who accused him of a decades-old sexual assault, which Kavanaugh has denied.

The Heitkamp-Cramer matchup is seen as critical for control of the closely divided Senate. Heitkamp is one of 10 Democratic senators up for re-election in states Trump carried in 2016.