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'Shad Planking' offers window on US Senate race in Virginia

Oily, bony fish? Check. Baked beans? Check. Politics? You betcha! GOP US Senate hopeful George Allen gave the keynote speech at 'Shad Planking 2012' in Virginia. Why was Democratic rival Tim Kaine a no-show?

By Staff writer / April 19, 2012

Former Virginia US Senator George Allen greets attendees at the 64th annual Wakefield Shad Planking in Wakefield, Va., Wednesday. Allen is running for the Republican nomination for uS Senate.

Steve Helber/AP

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Wakefield, Va.

At "Shad Plankings" of yore, Virginia's Democratic machine would hunker down over beer and shad – the oily, bony fish that is nailed to planks and smoked here in tiny Wakefield, Va., on the third Wednesday in April, rain or shine – and make political kings in the Old Dominion.

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Sixty-four years into one of Virginia's oldest political traditions, however, the few Democrats in attendance end up in camouflage. 

The absence of Democrats from this year's Planking – and the keynote speech from likely GOP Senate candidate George Allen, a former Virginia governor – sheds some light on the challenges for both candidates in this tight race as they head into the campaign's summer slog.  

Darryl Merchant, a Democrat, sported a windbreaker spotted with stickers from conservatives such as state delegate Bob Marshall (R), who during this year's session of the Virginia General Assembly introduced a controversial "personhood" bill defining life as beginning at the moment of conception. In his hand: a plastic cup of beer bearing the logo of Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling.

The reason: At Shad Planking, your $25 entrance fee buys a heaping plate of shad, fried whiting, baked beans, coleslaw, and a cup of sweet tea. But the political candidates themselves dispense the free beer and spirits. So if Mr. Merchant, a resident of Fort Royal, Va., who fondly recalls Planking appearances by Democratic figures such former US Sen. Chuck Robb and former Gov. Douglas Wilder, wants stronger libation, he's got to go undercover.

"Where are the Democrats at?" he asks. "I'm going to set up my own booth."

Referring to Planking no-show Tim Kaine, also a former Virginia governor and current Democratic candidate for US Senate, Merchant says Mr. Kaine is missing an opportunity.

Democrats "started this ... thing," he says. "Why isn't he here? He should have his bus here. He should have everything here.... [Democrats are] not here because he's not here."

For Kaine, the political calculation was that a day stumping with war veterans and women voters in densely populated Hampton Roads and a suburb of Richmond was worth far more than an afternoon among a largely unsympathetic crowd, where few votes are to be had. In a race likely to come down to a razor-thin margin of victory, a day with key constituencies trumps a pilgrimage to the Planking.

"Not too many people in northern Virginia are wondering what is happening at the Shad Planking," says Bob Holsworth, a government consultant who has headed commissions and groups for Virginia governors of both parties dating back to Gov. Douglas Wilder (D) in the early 1990s. "You're not going to see tons of women.... It's a Virginia of a different era than we have now."

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