Updated: April 22, 4:26 p.m.
The political kickoff of an election year in Virginia is the annual Shad Planking, an event filled with beer guzzling, glad-handing and bipartisan politicking.
It’s the kind of event where Democrats like Sen. Mark Warner and Rep. Bobby Scott might be spotted smiling and chatting with former Senator and current Republican Senate candidate George Allen in the woods outside a rural town southeast of Richmond — which actually happened Wednesday.
The festivities are as much about the food as they are the politicking. The tradition is to smoke the bony fish on a wood plank over flame — and politicians joke that no one really comes for the fish, which can be oily.
This year’s event had the feeling of an election year, even though the Senate primaries are more than twelve months away.
“I look at this as the kickoff for the general election, so to speak,” Allen told reporters. “This is ... the best bipartisan political event in Virginia. Folks have a good time, talking to one another, having their various viewpoints and so forth. And it’s fun. It’s the way politics ought to be.”
Allen was in his element as he shook countless hands and chatted with attendees who knew him way back when. He has attended at least the past three years, using each one as another stepping stone in his quest for his old job.
Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell’s joke-filled speech epitomized the bipartisan nature of the event, even if most of this year’s attendees were Republicans. He described Allen, who was looking ahead to a run for president when he lost re-election in 2006, and Democratic Senate candidate Tim Kaine, who is only running because Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) is retiring, as “two men running for a job neither of them wants.”
“What a battle of the titans we’re going to have,” McDonnell said, describing them as “guys from California and Kansas trying to get a job in Virginia.”
Allen’s top primary competitor at the moment, tea party leader Jamie Radtke, had a booth set up with a chart displaying the differences between her views and Allen’s on various issues, including No Child Left Behind, Medicare Part D and earmarks.
She was also handing out bags of pork rinds, with a sign posted at her booth that read: “Here is the only pork you’ll get from Jamie.”
Speaking with Roll Call, Radtke said this was the first time, other than a Lincoln Reagan dinner, that she and Allen have seen each other on the trail. This event provided Radtke, who was far outraised by Allen in the first quarter, with an even playing field to speak with prospective primary voters.
“The main thing I tell people, if you look at his record of spending and earmarks and voting for new programs like No Child Left Behind and Medicare Part D, you can’t think that if you’re going to re-elect a career politician who has that record and think it’s going to be different this time around,” she said. “We don’t have time for business as usual.”
Larry Adams, a Republican from New Kent County, said it’s Allen’s experience in Washington that makes him such an attractive candidate. “He knows the ins and outs and how to get things done. And I’m going to support him.”
Jack Scureman, a self-described citizen lobbyist and friend of Radtke, said, “Jamie is a fresh face. She is what she says she’s going to do.”
Allen said he is happy to talk about his record in the Senate, though like Kaine, he often refers to his record as Virginia’s governor.
“I’ll be happy to talk about my record and my ideas, what I’ve been able to do serving the people of Virginia as governor, as well as U.S. Senator,” Allen said. “I think it’s equally important to say based on the record of performance for the people of Virginia what we need to do to get our country turned around.”
The GOP primary winner will likely face Kaine, who entered the race earlier this month and was not in attendance Wednesday. Although she is currently well behind Allen in the money race, Radtke said that will not be a problem if she makes it to the general.
“I think that Republican tea party candidates have shown themselves to have the ability when they get past the primary to raise funds,” she said.