WAKEFIELD, Va. — Alan Jackson’s “God Bless Texas” may be blaring over the loudspeakers, but there’s no mistaking that this is Virginia. Over the past six decades the commonwealth’s most politically minded citizens have gathered here at the Wakefield Ruritan Club for cold beer, bony fish and speechmaking from some of the state’s biggest names.
Shad Planking is a festival that brings out all of Virginia’s sons and daughters, from the Tidewater to the Shenandoah Valley, for an afternoon of old-school politicking under a canopy of oaks, pines and beer tents.
According to the program Wednesday, the main attraction of the day was the speeches by the state’s top Senate candidates, former Gov. Mark Warner (D) and the two men who are vying for the GOP nomination, former Gov. Jim Gilmore and state Del. Bob Marshall. Indeed, the event is considered by many insiders to be the kickoff of the political season in the Old Dominion.
But the fried shad eggs, the drinking and the networking among donors, party flaks and media types appeared to be just as important to the success of the event.
“Send us a check, and make it a big one,” one Republican staffer was overheard encouraging a potential donor.
The speeches themselves were rousing, humorous and at times sobering.
Warner took a lighthearted approach to his speech rather than turn the event into a debate. It was the move of a man who is the acknowledged frontrunner in the race to replace retiring Sen. John Warner (R). Meanwhile, his top Republican competitor, Gilmore, seemed to almost ignore Marshall’s primary challenge and spent most of his time laying into Warner. He tied his campaign to that of the presumed GOP presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), as if the two were already running on the same ticket in November.
But not lost in all the political positioning that took place on Wednesday was an acknowledgement that it also was the first anniversary of the shootings at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, which took the lives of 32 students and faculty members.
“There’s no question it is a sad day,” Gilmore said. “It was a terrible tragedy. … I think we need to remember that today. We need to express our remembrance of those folks and make sure they have not died in vain. This is a safer state today and we need to work to make it safer and safer.”
While it was hard to say which candidate walked away with the best stump speech Wednesday, Mark Warner was universally acknowledged as the winner of another important contest at Shad Planking: the sign war.
Each year during the festival, volunteers for the candidates line the miles of the roads leading into the event with thousands of campaign signs. This year, Warner signs began six miles outside of Wakefield and seemed to multiply exponentially leading up to the event. Perhaps it was to be expected: Warner is a man of vast personal and political resources, and the sign war seemed to bear that out.
“I think it’s a great way to get volunteers out and excited,” Warner said of the 100 or so volunteers who began putting up signs on Tuesday night. “But even I got a little embarrassed driving down the road here.”
Warner’s press department was quick to note that the campaign would be cleaning up and reusing the thousands of signs that were put up for the event.
Gilmore shrugged off the sign deficit.
“We made a definite decision that we weren’t going to throw a lot of money out on signs,” Gilmore said. “I don’t think that’s a [good] expenditure of our contributors’ money.”
Warner “has plenty of money, no question about it,” Gilmore said. “He can spend anything he wants to spend on this race. Our job is raise as much money as we need to do our job and not outraise Mark Warner.”
But state Del. Brian Moran (D), brother of Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) and a candidate for governor in 2009, saw Warner’s victory in the sign war as a metaphor for this year’s Senate race.
“I don’t think it was a war. It was a concession,” he said. “It’s an indication of good things to come. … Mark will win and he will do for the country what he did for the commonwealth of Virginia.”
Hours before Warner, Gilmore and Marshall even showed up Wednesday, hundreds of early arrivals were gathering buttons and stickers from activists representing every point along the state’s political spectrum.
In one section along tent row, the Virginia Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans had been given a table next door to the Libertarian Party of Virginia.
“I will take that as an unintentional oversight,” Jon Walker, the Richmond Libertarian chairman, said of the interesting table placement.
But the Libertarians, who are running their own Senate candidate in the November race, weren’t holding a grudge.
“This is Virginia,” said Jim Lark, vice chairman of the state Libertarian Party. “Even people who disagree with you are pleasant and nice. … We can still have a beer together.”
The Sons of Confederate Veterans — who were out Wednesday to raise money for monument preservation and to advocate for the Confederate flag to be returned to the state Capitol — seemed to agree, at least on that last point.
“Have a beer,” said Darryl Starnes, chief of heritage defense for the Virginia Division, as he pointed to the Legend brewery truck the group had brought with them. “It’s good. … It’s a Southern beer.”