The annual Shad Planking, a culinarily perplexing but well-loved Virginia political tradition, has welcomed lawmakers and candidates of both political parties for decades, to take the stage with light-hearted self-mockery.
The crowd at the rural event, held in a nondescript pine clearing, has trended more Republican in recent years. Although Democrats still hold the top offices in Virginia, so, too, has the state's political landscape been shifting to favor Republicans — which is exactly the problem Warner expects to face, and hopes to tackle, as he runs for re-election in this challenging midterm election cycle.
“Looking at this crowd, I realize I am here as an endangered species,” said Warner, a 25-year veteran of the Shad Planking. “A Virginia Democrat.”
The uneven demographics were clear as Warner smiled and shook hands at intervals with Republican former Lt. Gov. John Hager, Virginia GOP Chairman Chair Pat Mullins, and Warner's likely general election challenger, former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie.
Gillespie’s and Warner’s first face-to-face meeting as campaign-trail foes lasted just a minute before, with a handshake and smiles, the men walked on, sign-wielding aides trailing close behind.
The broader tone of the afternoon was less cordial. Gillespie's campaign decided to forego the tradition of staking signs along the gravel road to the planking, but the Virginia Republican Party posted large-scale ones of its own. “Mark Warner betrayed Virginia,” the signs read. “Obamacare's deciding vote.”
As in other battleground Senate races in 2014, the federal health care law promises to be a marquee issue in Virginia. And Wednesday, Warner faced some Virginians vocally angered by his support for Obamacare and some of President Obama's other policies.
“Y’all watch that guy, he’ll lie to you now!” yelled one man standing near Warner, as the senator signed a souvenir hat for a supporter. But Warner left the event unfazed.
“There’s no part of Virginia that I don’t have friends in and want to defend my record in,” Warner told reporters. When asked whether he would welcome Obama on the campaign trail, however, Warner dodged the question.
Few people come to the Shad Planking year after year for the fish. Schmoozing with candidates can be a draw, or the free beer. But shad is bony and oily; even smoked on a plank for six to eight hours before being smothered in a butter-based sauce, it is palatable at best.
If the fish is bland; however, the politics aren’t. The Shad Planking has long been an important Virginia political event, and within the past decade, organizers began awarding speaking slots to candidates as well as sitting elected officials, who had traditionally held the floor — making the rite of spring a freewheeling kickoff to the campaign season, too.
A few Democrats have in the past declined to keynote the Republican-leaning event, including Creigh Deeds and Sen. Tim Kaine. Gov. Terry McAuliffe has spoken before, in 2009, but turned down an invitation to speak last year when he was running for governor.
This year, however, it was not a Democrat who was notably absent from the stage, but Gillespie, who was not invited to make remarks.
“Some people said, ‘Why not let Ed Gillespie speak?’” said Robert Bain, the event’s chairman. “But he’s not the party’s nominated candidate yet.”
Gillespie, who for the bulk of his storied career behind the scenes in politics has moved from one victory to another, is expected to win his party’s nomination at a convention in Roanoke in June, but he is still decidedly an underdog against Warner. In most public polls, Warner has led Gillespie by double digits.
Gillespie also faces a fundraising disadvantage against Warner, who raised $2.7 million in March and finished the month having amassed $8.8 million on hand. Gillespie, for his part, brought in a respectable $2.2 million, but roughly 40 percent of that money came from donors outside of Virginia.
“This is going to be an expensive race,” Gillespie told reporters Wednesday. “You’ve got to draw resources from everywhere.”
Including from the Shad Planking crowd, to whom Gillespie’s campaign only offered beer once supporters had relinquished their valuable phone numbers and email addresses.
For Gillespie, a first-time candidate, it was also a first time at the Shad Planking, where nearly everyone has an opinion of the signature fare — except Gillespie, who had never tasted shad of any kind and didn’t know if he would like it.
“I’ll tell you in about two hours,” Gillespie said at the pre-shad reception. He paused, considering that response, before he added, “And, by the way, the answer will be, ‘Yes.’ I’m a first-time candidate, but I’m not new at this.”