WAKEFIELD, Va. — They gathered in the piney woods of Southside Virginia, nailed bony fish to wooden planks and pondered, as they have since the 1930s, the fate of the state and nation.
This time, they also debated the future of the Shad Planking itself.
The venerable political confab — once open only to white male Democratic Party bosses, who handpicked the state’s governor over smoked fish and beer — threw open its doors decades ago to all comers. The trick today is to keep the crowds and politicians coming.
Attendance was sparse Friday at the event’s latest incarnation, despite an ambitious effort to re-brand it as a wine, beer and booze tasting.
“It was kind of sad,” Bobby Saunders, 39, an electrician and son of a former mayor of Hopewell, a little over 30 miles away, said as he headed out.
It was a rainy day in an off year in the state’s election cycle. The crowds could flock back to this wooded spot, about an hour west of Virginia Beach, in 2017, when Virginia picks a governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general.
“Could be a combination of bad weather and no statewide race,” Brian Moran, Virginia’s secretary of public safety and homeland security and one of just a few Democrats to take the stage, said via text afterward. “True test [will be] next year.”
The newly re-christened Shad Planking and Grapes and Grains Festival, which the Wakefield Ruritan Club took over in 1949 to raise money for ball fields, 4-H clubs and other local charities, offered attendees more than the usual fish and politics. They could slurp samples from Virginia wineries, distilleries and breweries. And they could take in a deep-woods tribute to the late pop star Prince, as a Richmond country band offered its rendition of “Purple Rain.” The Confederate flags that once abounded were nowhere to be seen. One fluttered on the front porch of a nearby house, which also boasted a homemade sign promoting Ben Carson for president.
Old and new were on vivid display as tents promoting marijuana legalization and wine-fueled painting classes shared the same soggy turf as those sponsored by the National Rifle Association and a “wildlife nuisance control trapper.” The last of those had piles of pelts on hand.
“We wanted to bring a younger demographic,” said Teresa Blakley, who was staffing a booth set up by CAMS, a Petersburg marketing firm that led the rebranding effort. “We want this tradition to continue on.”
She added: “You can’t control the weather, right?”
What was once a must for anyone seeking statewide office has become optional in the eyes of many Democrats, who started skipping the event in recent election cycles as the crowd in the heart of Virginia peanut country turned solidly red.
Former governor Timothy M. Kaine (D) broke with tradition as a no-show in 2012, on his way to winning a U.S. Senate seat that year. Terry McAuliffe (D) tempted fate in 2013, bypassing an event that every victorious candidate for governor had attended since at least 1965. He broke the streak by winning.
Yet Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), unwilling to cede the rural vote in his reelection bid in 2014, made the trip to Wakefield that year.
A presidential straw poll that was part of this year’s Shad Planking suggested the crowd remains heavily Republican. Donald Trump ran away with the vote, with 82 in favor. Next were Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas (40 votes) and Ohio Gov. John Kasich (27). Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders were tied with nine apiece.
So even a year out, some Republican statewide office seekers saw the value of showing up and making a speech, even though at times only about 50 people gathered by the stage to listen to them.
Rep. Robert J. Wittman (R-Va.), who is running for reelection to Congress this year but also for governor in 2017, was there. So were three Republican candidates for attorney general: Del. Robert B. Bell (Albemarle) as well as lawyers John Adams of Virginia Beach and Chuck Smith of Richmond. Three Republicans running for lieutenant governor also showed: Del. Glenn R. Davis Jr. (Virginia Beach), Sen. Bryce E. Reeves (Spotsylvania) and Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel (Fauquier).
One Democratic office seeker took the time to set up a tent: Chesapeake City Council member Ella P. Ward, who is running for a seat in Congress now held by Rep. J. Randy Forbes (R-Va.). (Forbes is running in Virginia’s 2nd District rather than his current 4th because redistricting has made the latter more African American and Democratic.)
“It’s Republican, yeah, but I’m used to that,” said Ward, who has to run citywide for her council seat. “I need to reach out to all of the people of the 4th District.”
Wittman, who grew up fishing for shad on Virginia’s Mattaponi River, agreed that the crowds were down this year but attributed that to the weather. He said he has not lost his taste for the fish or its namesake event, which he sees as a great venue for retail politicking.
“We could tell people what our plans are for running for ’16, but also preparing and doing the things necessary for ’17, and talking about national and state issues,” he said. “We had a chance to talk to a lot of people.”