At the annual Shad Planking in Wakefield, candidates for statewide office engage in the old-timey campaign tactics of yesteryear, shamelessly and without fear of embarrassment.
The approach is as transparent as it is basic: Set up a tent in a dusty field and woo rural voters with free beer and pork sandwiches. Both amenities are served eagerly and with straightforward political pitches.
"My policies are as good as my barbecue," Pete Snyder, one of the Republican contenders for lieutenant governor, tells a voter while he prepares a plate. Before releasing the meat into his potential supporter's hands, he adds: "Can I count on y'all?"
The people on both sides of the transaction seem to enjoy the exchange. But all is not well in Wakefield. Turnout is down and organizers from the Wakefield Ruritan Club are uneasy — the event is a major fundraiser for their community service projects.
Not long into the formal program of speeches, the master of ceremonies addresses the source of the anxiety when he induces a round of booing from the crowd. The group's ire is directed at The Washington Post, which the day before published an article quoting more than one state campaign consultant describing the event as having "completely and utterly outlived its usefulness."
It's an assertion the Ruritans vigorously dispute, even as the article in question merely documents what's readily apparent to anyone standing in the crowd: What was a bipartisan, Virginia political tradition has morphed into a solidly Republican event. En route to becoming governor, both Tim Kaine and Mark Warner (both now in the U.S. Senate) made the trek to Wakefield. But current Democratic gubernatorial hopeful, Terry McAuliffe, is nowhere to be found.
Many attendees wear stickers handed out by the Virginia Citizens Defense League that proclaim: "Guns Save Lives." Americans for Prosperity, a conservative special interest group, hands out cupcakes with frosting airbrushed with the colors red, white and blue. The text, "Mayor Bloomberg hates this," decorates extra-tall cups of beer.
The Shad Planking started in the 1930s and marked the running of the shad, migratory fish that swim upriver every spring to lay eggs. The shad are filleted, nailed to oak boards and smoked over an open fire — hence the event's name. Organizers brag that every successful gubernatorial candidate has attended since the mid-1960s.
This year Republican hopeful Ken Cuccinelli is the marquee speaker. Depending on who you ask, either last year's event or this year's is the first that hasn't drawn a single Democratic candidate to participate. In contrast, nearly every Republican vying for statewide office is using the event to make a show of campaign force.
During his speech, Attorney General Cuccinelli dings McAuliffe for not attending, noting that in 2009 he'd not only attended the Shad Planking but also planted "more Terry McAuliffe signs than there were blades of grass."
But did anyone in the crowd really miss McAuliffe and the other Democrats? An informal survey of attendees reveals an across-the-board consensus: no.
2013 Shad Planking
Dennis Hylton of Suffolk wears a Bud Light hat and is eating a hunk of deep-fried shad roe drowning in barbecue sauce. He says he's been coming to the event for 14 years, and although he's solidly Republican, he's used to hearing from the Democratic candidates when they come around to speak.
"I listen to them," he says. "But, I'm not disappointed Terry McAuliffe isn't going to be here … not really. I'm just not a Democrat and I don't like their liberal ways."
Robert Bain, the Wakefield Ruritan Club's chairman of the event, says the group is committed to maintaining a bipartisan atmosphere. Still, he says: "I don't think anybody misses [the Democrats]. I mean, we're here to raise funds for the community and have a good time, and we're going to continue doing that. And we're going to do it with them or without them." S