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‘Shad Planking’ offers window on US Senate race in Virginia

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

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.

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.

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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.”

In Wakefield (pop. 955), the accents are frequently as thick as the smoke drifting from the shad smokehouse, where several dozen workers prep the fish. The gathering is almost entirely white, and the scene, about an hour southeast of Richmond, is backwoodsy, held amid a clearing in the pine trees. Supporters of libertarian presidential hopeful Ron Paul park their cars and turn down stickers for local US Rep. Randy Forbes (R), who has a 13-year-old supporter holding a goat named Rambo at the event’s entrance. Both goat and boy are wearing Forbes for Congress T-shirts.

Several attendees bring cigars to light up in the open air. About as many pack sidearms on their hips.

But where Democrats see little to gain, Republicans have a different game. Planking attendees “are people who are politically involved,” says Bob Denton, a communications professor at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., and a longtime state politics commentator. “It might be a way to activate your base a little bit.”

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Enter George Allen. Mr. Allen gave the keynote address at the Shad Planking, sounding themes he hits often: his economic record as Virginia’s governor, the need for more domestic energy production to beat back higher gasoline prices, and the nefariousness of President Obama‘s health-care law.

What he didn’t mention was his time in the US Senate, where Allen’s critics on the left (Kaine) and on the right (tea party partisans) tie him to the expansion of government spending under President George W. Bush.

“George had his chance,” says Dan Corrier of Mechanicsville, Va., a working-class city just outside of Richmond. “He had six years to do something, and all he did was put his foot in his mouth.”

Amid such concerns, Allen set out to put his skills as a retail politician to work firming up his base. While Allen is the favorite to win the Republican Senate primary, there are still people like Mr. Corrier, who wore a sticker promoting long-shot GOP Senate candidates and tea partyer Jamie Radtke, that Allen will need come November.

Wakefield Mayor C. Winston Britt, though, says he’s attended the Planking for 26 years, and that although the candidates come and go, some things simply don’t change.

The planking is the “same as it ever was,” says Mr. Britt, with a twinkle. “Politicians come down here and tell lies.”