WAKEFIELD, Va. — Most things about Shad Planking never change.
So on the third Wednesday of April in a clutch of woods in rural Sussex County, there were piles of smoky fish, gallons of cold beer, thick clusters of backslapping politicians and the usual corny speeches.
But a few elements Wednesday had changed since the 2011 affair: The heat was replaced by the threat of rain, and last year’s tease of a tough Senate Republican primary gave way to a consensus that November’s general election will almost certainly feature former governors George Allen (R) and Timothy M. Kaine (D).
And one more thing was different this year: There were no Democrats.
“The real reason that I love the Shad Planking so much is it really is the preeminent, the best bipartisan political event in the entire commonwealth of Virginia,” said Allen, the featured speaker Wednesday.
The event does have a bipartisan history; like Virginia as a whole, it used to be dominated by Democrats, and in recent years, Sen. Mark Warner (D), Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (D) and gubernatorial hopeful Terry McAuliffe (D) all made appearances. But none of the three came this year; nor did any other prominent Democrats have booths set up at the event.
And Kaine, who faces no competition for the Democratic nod in the contest to succeed retiring Sen. James Webb (D), skipped it for the second consecutive year. He was invited to speak, but the deadline passed without him accepting the invite. (Kaine’s campaign said at the time it was unaware there was a deadline.)
“Governor Kaine has already campaigned in the region, as recently as last week, and will campaign again there many times between now and Election Day,” said spokeswoman Brandi Hoffine. Instead, Kaine spent Wednesday holding economic roundtables in Norfolk and Chesterfield, and collecting the endorsement of a veterans group, VETPAC.
Robert W. Bain, the Wakefield Ruritan Club chairman and event organizer, said he was disappointed by the lack of Democrats at the gathering, which raises money for local causes.
“We’d love to have them,” he said. “It helps us sell more tickets, and obviously that’s what I’m all about — ticket sales.”
Shad Planking began in the 1930s, as the official history describes it, “as a small gathering of friends to celebrate the James River running of shad — the oily, bony fish smoked for the occasion on wood planks over an open flame.”
The festival has been run by the Wakefield Ruritan Club in Sussex County since 1949, gradually becoming a larger part of the state’s political firmament and changing along with it. The formerly all-white, all-male enclave has become somewhat more diverse over the years.
Bain acknowledged that it “seemed to be a conservative-type crowd” on Wednesday. “I don’t know what we could do to make it more appealing to them,” he said of Democrats.
Even with the lack of big names from one side of the aisle and overcast weather, the event still attracted nearly 2,000 people, Bain estimated. Organizers said they served about 1,200 pounds of shad, 1,000 pounds of fried whiting and 800 pounds of coleslaw.
Allen’s three GOP opponents — Bishop Earl Jackson, Del. Robert Marshall (Prince William) and former Virginia Tea Party Patriots head Jamie Radtke — all had a presence, but none could match the crowd-drawing power of the former governor and senator.
The festival has long been seen as a barometer of a campaign’s organizational prowess, as candidates compete to bring the most signs, volunteers and knickknacks to the party. (In a twist, Allen said he decided to forgo “the sign wars” this year, instead presenting a $2,500 check to the Ruritan Club because it was a better way to spend the money.)
Most candidates provided beer, while Jackson’s booth served Virginia tea — sweet and unsweetened. Radtke gave out Dum Dums lollipops, she said, because people in Washington “think we’re a bunch of suckers.”
Unlike last year, when many Republican Shad-goers were entertaining the notion of voting for someone else, the 2012 crowd seemed to view Allen as the all-but-certain winner in the June 12 primary and were already looking ahead to November.
“I think he’s definitely going to be the candidate,” said Michael Harrison, an Allen supporter who runs a hardwood-flooring business in Richmond.
Ryland Ford, the owner of a Dairy Queen in Hanover County, agreed. “I don’t think Allen has any real strong competitors,” Ford said.
The other candidates did have some support. Grayson Jennings, a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, stood in the scrum surrounding Allen with a Radtke sign in one hand and a Confederate flag in the other.
Jennings said he thought Allen could be beaten “if a few more people wake up.”
“Right now, we have too many uninformed people voting,” he said.
Among the Republican field, only Allen was invited to address the crowd. Bain said it wasn’t practical to have all the candidates speak. “We asked Kaine and Allen primarily due to the fact that they were former governors,” he said.
For her part, Radtke said she was unconcerned by the lack of a speaking invitation, and she was happy with the feedback she got at the event. “Last year, I was a new face, and this year, people have been coming up to me and saying, ‘It’s so great to see you,’ ” she said.
Marshall, who was absent because of the General Assembly special session, said in a phone interview Tuesday that he also didn’t care about being kept off the speaking dais.
“I’ve got to do the work of the people in Richmond, so if I’m not invited, that’s fine,” he said. “That’s not the only vote-getting venue in the state.”