Smoke the shad, press the flesh: a Virginia political ritual past its prime?

Republicans dominate one of Virginia's oldest political events, the annual 'Shad Planking' in Wakefield. This is no longer Democrat-friendly turf, but attendees still see reason for Democratic candidates to come.

Steve Helber/AP
Former Virginia US Sen. 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.

Making his way through the throngs at the annual "Shad Planking" in Wakefield, Va., former Virginia Gov. George Allen ran into Bernard Blackwell, who reminded him of a 1996 trip he made as governor to Mr. Blackwell's grandmother's house in rural Northern Neck after a hurricane all but destroyed it.

Blackwell was at a loss for words after Mr. Allen, now a Republican candidate for the US Senate, recalled one key detail: He had come across the grandmother's stray dog in a nearby field. "I can't believe he remembered the dog," Blackwell said afterward.

At a moment when "super political-action committees" can flood the airwaves with unlimited amounts of money and campaigns are plunging into social media, the Planking – one of Virginia's oldest political festivals, where politicians break bread with regular Joes over smoked shad – shows that good ol' retail politicking still flies

"This is the way politics ought to be," Allen said in his keynote speech, "with people actually talking eye-to-eye with each other." 

While Allen and Democratic nominee Tim Kaine, another ex-governor and former head of the Democratic National Committee, have lots of events around the commonwealth, those appearances are usually targeted to key groups, such as members of their own political party, small-business owners, or veterans.

"How many places can you go in the state of Virginia that anybody can buy a ticket and walk up and shake George Allen's hand or Tim Kaine's hand or whoever and talk to 'em one-on-one?" says Stan Brantley, master of ceremonies of the Planking for the past 14 years.

But Kaine, Allen's Democratic opponent in the Senate race, didn't come. It's hard to fault him. He's not likely to win many votes at the GOP-dominated Planking, and his job is to win pulls of the lever or punches on the computer screen (or whatever) come November. Virginia political watchers and recent experience backs up the theory that the Planking isn't all that important for politicians on the left.

In 2009, Terry McAuliffe and Brian Moran, two Democratic candidates for governor, did go to Shad Planking. State Sen. Creigh Deeds (D), who wasn't in attendance, eventually got the nomination.

Even so, sticking one's neck out at the Planking can win a level of respect from even the harshest partisans. Mr. McAuliffe, a close confidant of Bill and Hillary Clinton, isn't exactly the type of person James Cupp of Warsaw, Va., would ever think about voting for: He says state Delegate and arch social conservative Bob Marshall (R) would have made the best choice for the Senate had he gotten into the race a bit earlier.

Yet Mr. Cupp respects McAuliffe for going into the lion's den.

"He wasn't beneath talking to folks even though they didn't agree with him," he says. "I give McAuliffe a lot of credit for coming down here."

Jim Campbell of Wicomico Church, Va., listed Sen. Mark Warner (D) right alongside GOP heavyweights like former Sen. John Warner among his favorite Shad Planking memories.

And in contrast to the soccer moms or suburban immigrant communities that represent the much buzzier keys to electoral victory in the Old Dominion, there are a few old-line rural Democrats around who speak for a Virginia Democratic Party before the booming northern Virginia suburbs pulled the party's center of gravity toward the Potomac.

"This is how you prove you're a good ol' boy – come on out here and have a little fun, let the Ruritans raise a little money, and press the flesh a little bit," says Darryl Merchant, a Democrat who also has a concealed carry permit, "and at least show the Republicans there are Democrats around."

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