Ed Gillespie, campaigning in a treacherous political environment defined by an unpopular president of his own party, ran the only race he reasonably could. He distanced himself from Donald Trump personally, hoping to lessen his losses in heavily Democratic Northern Virginia, while hitting some Trumpian notes on crime and immigration to appeal to the president's base.
Former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, the self-declared keeper of the Trumpist flame, believed Gillespie had cracked the code by fashioning a "Trumpism without Trump." He managed, per Bannon, to close the enthusiasm gap "by rallying around the Trump agenda," and Democrats needed to be "very, very worried."
At least that was the party line until the race was called soon after the polls closed at 7 p.m. Then, Gillespie became an establishment tool who had betrayed Trumpism and the president. A Bannon spokesman blasted Gillespie for allegedly having no message and being inauthentic, which is quite the charge coming from people who will change what they are saying on a dime, depending on the imperatives of the political spin of the hour.
That aside, the Virginia race revealed a problem with the Trumpism without Trump construct - namely, that it's not really possible.
First, it's not going to be convincing to Trump-haters. Gillespie - even when talking about cracking down on MS-13 - isn't the slightest bit Trumpy. He's earnest, wonky and friendly.
When he distanced himself from Trump, it was credible because he hadn't been close to Trump to begin with. He had never met him, and all of Trump's support on Twitter was unsolicited.
None of this made the slightest difference to voters in Northern Virginia, where Northam racked up margins bigger than Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.
These people weren't showing up to send a message to Gillespie. They were showing up to send a message to Trump, whom they believe is a clear and present danger to all that they hold dear.
Gillespie could've revealed himself to be a secret member of #TheResistance, and these mobilized suburbanites still would've voted against him as the best way to make a gigantic rude gesture toward the president.
So as a sheer political matter, there can be no such thing as Trumpism without Trump, or Anti-Trumpism without Trump, or Anything Else without Trump.
It's hard enough for a candidate to run away from a conventional president of his own party. (Democrats couldn't do it during midterm drubbings while Bill Clinton and Barack Obama were presidents.)
But it's going to be even harder with a president who dominates the media to an extent no other president has, and courts - nay, enjoys - radioactive controversies.
Until further notice, the phenomenon we saw in 2016 of Republicans running successful, traditional campaigns at a polite remove from Trump has to be considered inoperative.
Then, there is the other, opposite problem: that Trumpism without Trump won't be fully acceptable to Trumpists. They talk a lot about the "Trump agenda," although what this means is vague.
How could Gillespie have run on it more to their satisfaction? Promise to build a wall and have Mexico pay for it? To implement extreme vetting? To hire the best people and make the best deals? To work with Chuck and Nancy as the mood strikes him?
Fact is, the Trump legislative agenda is entirely conventional (certainly Gillespie has no problem with it) and what sets Trump apart is his populist, guy-on-a-barstool persona and perpetual combativeness.
This is what his loyalists ultimately want everyone to sign up for, the personality. The idea that this would have juiced turnout in Trump country enough to overcome Northam's 9-point margin - Gillespie already did quite well in rural areas - is hard to credit.
In theory, Trumpism without Trump is the right direction for the GOP. It should learn from his populist, nationalistic appeal while avoiding its (and his) excesses.
In practice, Trump himself is going to loom all the larger in the party. He's the main issue in American politics, and he may be the only Republican fit to weather the storm - he has a proven ability to turn out his voters, he doesn't have to win elections in nonpresidential years and his persona works for him, if not for anyone else.
If the worst comes and Republicans lose both houses of Congress next year, Trump's importance will be further magnified as the only Republican standing between Democrats and unified control of the federal government.
In that circumstance, Republican voters would probably be much more willing to embrace Trump without Trumpism, rather than the opposite.