Sexual Assault Victim Outed by Heitkamp: 'She Definitely Lost My Vote'

October 18, 2018

A sexual assault survivor whose privacy was invaded by Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D., N.D.) said Thursday morning she would no longer support the senator’s reelection.

Lexi Zhorela, of Bismarck, North Dakota, appeared on CNN's "New Day" where she spoke about her experience being revealed in a Heitkamp campaign ad as a victim of sexual assault.

The Heitkamp campaign placed the ad in Saturday's Bismarck Tribune, framing it as an open letter to midterm challenger Rep. Kevin Cramer (R., N.D.). It criticized Cramer for supporting Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, and it was presented as if it had been written by a list of North Dakotan women who were purportedly victims of "domestic violence, sexual assault, or rape." 

Soon after, however, a number of the women came forward to criticize the ad, some denying they were ever contacted. Some denied they were even victims of abuse.

Others like Zhorela, however, were in fact victims of serious crimes but had kept their experiences private. For those, Heitkamp's ad exposed information some never shared with close family or friends.

"I was very private about the things that had happened to me in the past ... For the rest of my life, I'll have to hold the title as a 'survivor,' and that wasn't my choice," Zhorela said. "I never made that choice in the first place, but I'll have to walk around with it for the rest of my life."

"I’m furious," the 24-year-old hairdresser and single mother told the Associated Press earlier this week. "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."

Cramer called Heitkamp's attack ad a "revictimization of victims." In comments to the AP, he called Heitkamp "desperate," showing "that her personal politics matter more than someone’s personal pain."

Heitkamp is considered one of the most vulnerable senators ahead of November's midterm elections. The New York Times reported:

The mistake could hardly have come at a worse time for Ms. Heitkamp. One of a handful of Democratic senators running for re-election in a state President Trump carried in 2016, she already faced a tough battle to defend her seat. But the bitter fight over Brett M. Kavanaugh’s confirmation — Ms. Heitkamp voted against it — has nationalized the Senate elections in a way many embattled Democrats had been trying to avoid, and provided an avenue of attack for Mr. Cramer.

Earlier this week, Heitkamp told reporters she would be "personally apologizing to each of the people impacted" by the ill-advised advertisement. On WZFG-AM 1100 on Tuesday, Heitkamp apologized without reservation. "I think that this is horrible," she said. "And I think that that is a colossal and huge mistake." The campaign also fired a staffer it blamed for the ad.

For Zhorela, though, it was too late. "You can't really retract that," she said. "The damage is done." To her and others, an apology would not be enough, though even that was still forthcoming.

Zhorela plans to vote in the midterm election, but while she intended to vote for Heitkamp, she no longer will. "As of right now, she definitely lost my vote," she said.