WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump delivered a warning to Democrats during a raucous Minnesota rally last month: The impeachment inquiry, he predicted, would backfire in next year's election.
"The Democrats' brazen attempt to overthrow our government will produce a backlash at the ballot box," Trump said at the time. "We will defeat them."
Nearly a month later, as the White House prepares for the next phase of the investigation, the president's combative remarks in Minneapolis have emerged as a central theme in Republican advertising as groups loyal to Trump gamble that his woes will be an asset rather than a hindrance next November.
Far from avoiding the impeachment inquiry, or the president's now infamous call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Republican groups are hammering vulnerable Democrats in digital and television ads for abandoning pocketbook issues in favor of what they describe as a relentless drive to remove Trump from office.
Republican political strategist Ron Bonjean said GOP groups are moving away from attacking the impeachment process to accusing Democrats of playing politics.
"You're either defining this environment right now or you're going to get defined by it politically," Bonjean said.
Trump camp spends heavily
Trump's campaign spent more than $1 million on Facebook ads in October that mentioned "impeachment," according to an analysis by Bully Pulpit Interactive, a Democratic group.
But while the Trump campaign was the largest player, it was far from alone.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and the campaign arm of Senate Republicans spent nearly $200,000 on Facebook ads referring to impeachment during that same time.
The Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC with ties to House GOP leaders, launched a new digital ad campaign soon after the House voted Thursday to formalize the impeachment investigation. The ads, aimed at Democratic-held districts Trump carried in 2016, tell voters that "your member of Congress just voted for impeachment!"
Explainer: What comes next in the Trump impeachment inquiry?
With a sepia-toned photo of an angry-looking House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the ads slam Democrats for focusing on impeachment at the expense of health care, the economy and infrastructure. The ad fails to mention the Trump administration made little progress on health or infrastructure during its first two years, when Republicans controlled both chambers of Congress.
The anti-tax group Club for Growth, meanwhile, is running digital ads focused on impeachment in House districts in Virginia, California, Illinois and New Mexico. Those ads have embraced the theme that Democrats are giving up on "real problems" to focus instead on "impeachment, all the time."
"There's a reason Pelosi has been hesitant to make impeachment official," said David McIntosh, the group's president. "She knows the evidence doesn't meet their charges and it will be a political liability."
Underscoring that they believe the politics of impeachment are on their side, aides at the campaign arm for House Republicans sent packing boxes to House Democrats this week. The boxes were adorned with bows and a message that read "Get packing!"
'No Mr. Nice Guy'
At the national level, the Trump and the Republican National Committee have spent more than $10 million on that message. Following the announcement of the impeachment inquiry, the RNC launched an anti-impeachment campaign called "Stop the Madness," targeting House Democrats up for re-election in 2020.
Trump's campaign aired a television ad during the World Series this week that touted the economy and the recent U.S. special forces raid in Syria that killed Abu Bakr al-Baghdad.
"He's no Mr. Nice guy," the ad's narrator says of the president. "But sometimes it takes a Donald Trump to change Washington."
Similar messages are running in down ballot races as well.
A campaign ad for Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin, a Republican up for re-election on Tuesday, also cites impeachment, portraying Bevin's opponent, Democrat Andy Beshear, as a backward liberal whose "top supporters want to impeach our president."
A separate spot paid for by an affiliate of the Republican Governors' Association goes further, claiming Bevin and Trump "are making Kentucky great again" while painting Beshear, the state's attorney general, as part of the effort to bring Trump down.
"Socialists in Washington want to impeach Trump and take us backward," the narrator says as photos of an angry-looking Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez appear on the screen.
The effort comes as polling indicates the nation is as sharply divided on impeachment as it is on many other issues facing Congress. Nearly four in 10 Americans said Trump's phone call with the Ukrainian president was itself an impeachable offense, according to a recent USA TODAY/Suffolk University Poll. Another 31% said there was nothing wrong with the conversation, echoing Trump's insistence that his conversation with Zelensky was "perfect."
Just over 20% of Americans said the call was "wrong" but doesn't rise to an impeachable offense.
Democratic groups that engage in elections have, so far, been more reticent to bring up impeachment in their own advertising.
Presidential candidate Tom Steyer, who in 2017 founded a grassroots effort to impeach Trump called Need to Impeach, has spent nearly $600,000 on Facebook ads mentioning the word "impeachment" this month, according to the Bully Pulpit analysis. That group is also airing television ads targeting four Republican senators - Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Joni Ernst of Iowa, Cory Gardner of Colorado and Martha McSally of Arizona - in case a Trump impeachment goes to a Senate trial.
Warren, a frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, doled out nearly $70,000 on Facebook ads referencing impeachment last month.
"It's time for Congress to step up and begin impeachment proceedings," one Warren ad bluntly says.
"No president is above the law," another reads.
Dems leave advertising void
One of the largest pro-impeachment digital ad buyers isn't a candidate at all but rather the executive of a Wisconsin-based spice company. Bill Penzey of Penzeys Spices, an outspoken Trump critic, spent nearly $500,000 on impeachment ads on Facebook last month.
In a lengthy ad, Penzey describes Trump as a "liar" and a "cheater."
"Next time shorter," the Penzey ad concludes, "and with recipes, too! I promise."
Read more: Wisconsin's Penzeys Spices raises $435,000 for Trump impeachment ads
A Democratic strategist with knowledge of the party's approach who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal tactics said the lack of traditional Democratic groups engaging doesn't reflect a party afraid to discuss the issue. Rather, the strategist said, Democrats don't want to be accused of attempting to politicize the impeachment investigation.
But that has left a void for Republicans to fill.
"There are a lot of people out there who voted for Donald Trump to be president of the United States who feel that they're basically taking the vote away," said Mike Thompson, a 44-year-old Florida man whose East Lee County Republican Club recently took out a small ad on Facebook calling the House vote a "motivating" event for the GOP.
"It's time to get fired up and start pushing back."
Beto O'Rourke: Beto O'Rourke ends his bid for the presidency
Jobs report: Trump boasts of 'blowout' 303,000 jobs report, leading economists to puzzle over his math
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Donald Trump impeachment: Republicans embrace fight in 2020 ads