Shad Planking marks the end of a bipartisan era

Sussex County’s annual Shad Planking, once a must-attend event for Virginia pols on either side of the aisle, has drifted far to the right. Photo: Roll Call Sussex County’s annual Shad Planking, once a must-attend event for Virginia pols on either side of the aisle, has drifted far to the right. Photo: Roll Call

When it comes to political partisanship, Virginia is a case study in voter schizophrenia. While trending increasingly Democratic during presidential years (and having failed to elect a Republican to the U.S. Senate since 2002), it nevertheless has a solidly conservative governor, a stridently right-wing attorney general, and a Republican-dominated House of Delegates that is among the most extreme in the nation.

And yet, despite the widening partisan divide between NoVa and RoVa (that’s pointy-headed politico speak for “Rest of Virginia,” in case you were wondering), our glorious Commonwealth has still managed to maintain a modicum of inter-party comity, even as other divided states (cough-Wisconsin-cough) have collapsed into bitterness and non-stop partisan bickering.

Without a doubt, one of the most visible displays of cross-party commingling in recent decades has been the Shad Planking, an annual gathering held in the woods of Sussex County and sponsored by the Wakefield Ruritan Club. A politics-and-smoked-fish festival that traces its roots all the way back to the 1930’s, Shad Planking came into its own alongside Virginia’s legendary U.S. senator (and onetime governor) Harry Byrd, who used it as an operational base for his fearsome Democratic machine.

While the planking has always been dominated by conservative white males (legend has it that then-State Senator Doug Wilder became the first black man to attend when he showed up in 1977, the same year that Washington Post reporter Megan Rosenfeld broke the festival’s gender barrier), it slowly evolved into a must-attend event for political candidates of every stripe.

In fact, at this point in the previous gubernatorial cycle, the long dirt road leading to the event was awash in thousands of signs for competing Democratic and Republican candidates (to be fair, they were mostly for Terry McAuliffe and Bob McDonnell, who took the traditional “sign wars” to a truly ludicrous extreme).

This year’s event, however, marked the second year in a row where not a single Democrat running for statewide office showed up. What’s more, the tenor of the event was noticeably more right wing than in years past, featuring a confederate flag-bedecked Sons of Confederate Veterans booth, hundreds of equally offensive confederate flag stickers worn by the nearly all-white, all-male attendees, and a festival-capping speech by Tea Party hero Cuccinelli.

Unfortunately for the Wakefield Ruritans, the festival’s gradual rightward drift has translated into much smaller crowds, which has a direct and obvious effect on the fundraising haul that is earmarked for Wakefield’s volunteer fire department and rescue squad, among other things. As Shad Planking chairman Robert Bain lamented to Hampton Roads’ Daily Press, “it’s always been a lighthearted atmosphere. It’s a place where people of all party affiliations come and exchange ideas without having to be in your face about it.”

It’s a nice sentiment, Mr. Bain. But sadly, given the current political atmosphere, it seems more likely that we’ll witness the electoral resurgence of the Whig party before such bipartisan bonhomie is seen in Virginia again.

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