An estimated 2,000 people attended the 64th annual Shad Planking, held deep in the woods an hour southeast of Richmond,Va., but hardly any of them were Democrats. No Democratic candidates rented booths, and former Sen. George Allen, who is seeking to win back his old job, had no opposing Democratic speaker to share the stage with, as former Gov. Tim Kaine skipped the event for the second consecutive year.
Most of the numerous campaign stickers affixed to attendees' shirts featured Allen's name, or one of the Republicans running for statewide office next year. A few of the only sticker-free people turned out to be Richmond lobbyists, who said they remain publicly neutral in elections.
Despite the lack of Democratic presence, the event still had mostly the same old feel. The highlight every year is the oily, bony fish cooked over hot coals under a tent behind the stage. Hungry attendees wait in long lines for a plate of shad and coleslaw, usually with a cold beer in their hand provided by one of the campaigns' beer trucks.
But the uniqueness of the event is voters' opportunity to interact with candidates and each other.
"It's the way politics ought to be," Allen told reporters as he shook hands with supporters waiting for some shad. "When I get my calendar at the beginning of every year, I write in our anniversary on June 7‚ and Susan's and all the kids' birthdays, and the other is you know the third Wednesday in April is Shad Planking."
Allen added, "And folks have a good time: eat, drink and be merry."
Jamie Radtke, a tea party leader and one of three other Republicans vying for the Senate nomination against Allen, parked her full-size RV by the row of booths and chatted with voters and reporters as they passed by.
"It's always good to be here because this is where the political junkies come, and they are the ones that are willing to knock on the doors, make the phone calls and have a loud mouth to get the message out on the campaign," said Radtke, who was celebrating her birthday on Wednesday campaigning ahead of the June 12 primary. Radtke, standing alone, smiled as she spoke with Roll Call, as Allen arrived with a large entourage of yellow t-shirt clad young supporters, who ushered him down the dirt path and along the line of booths.
As for the other Republican Senate contenders, E.W. Jackson, a minister, also attended the event and had a booth, while state Del. Bob Marshall was in the state capital finishing up legislative business.
Kaine, who has a clear path to the Democratic nomination, spent the day holding economic roundtables with veterans and military families in Hampton Roads, Va., and with women business leaders in the Richmond suburbs, and later he held a tele-town hall to discuss his economic agenda. Kaine also scooped up an endorsement from VETPAC, a veterans organization.
Mike Maddocks, 54, a Virginia native who said he has yet to decide which Senate candidate to vote for this year, called the Shad Planking "a very special event."
"It's an anachronism, coming out here and drinking beer and eating shad," Maddocks said, just after speaking with Radtke. "It's different, and I appreciate that. I like unique events that have been around for a long time."
The tradition runs deep for some attendees. J. Carlton Courter III's grandfather, M. Hill Abernathy, served in the General Assembly in the 1940s, and Kirby Burch's uncle, Thomas Burch, was an eight term Member of Congress before being appointed to the Senate in 1946. Abernathy and the elder Burch attended the event in its early days.
Unlike their ancestors, Courter and Burch now lean Republican. They discussed the separation between conservatives and Democrats in the 1970s, and Burch noted attendees once had to be invited by the Harry Byrd organization. Courter, who served as Virginia Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services during Allen's tenure as governor in the mid-1990s, called Shad Planking the "granddaddy of political events."
Looking around, the event, which was once male-only, is still dominated by white men. Allen, a Shad Planking regular, said the event gets more diverse every year. Robert Bain of the Wakefield Ruritan Club, which organizes the event, said they welcome attendees from all parties, pretty much anyone who will buy tickets. He projected they would net $25,000 this year, though it will be a little more than that after Allen cut the group a $2,500 check on stage just after his speech. Allen made the donation in lieu of partaking in the traditional sign war that sees campaigns line the road leading to the event with yard signs.
Dean Wagenbach of Franklin, Va., who has been attending this event since 1975, said he wouldn't pay the $25 entrance fee just to eat the fish or talk with candidates. Its uniqueness is the relationships formed over the years.
"I see people here I only see once a year," he said.