A two-party affair, but which two?

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Print this page by Bernie Niemeier

It was raining in Richmond on the morning of the 64th annual Shad Planking.  By afternoon, the rain hadn’t reached Wakefield, but cloudy skies still brought a chill to the air at this event known for marking the beginning of the election season in Virginia.

On the drive to Wakefield, the campaign signs weren’t nearly as heavy as I’d observed in the past.  In the parking area, a campaign worker asked me if I’d like a George Allen bumper sticker for my car, and I politely declined, saying that I don’t put stickers on my vehicle.

After passing the ticket booth, my first task was to find a cool beverage.  At the beer truck, they also asked if I’d like a campaign sticker, and I declined again, muttering something like “working press” or “professionally non-partisan.”  Fortunately, they still let me have a beer.

As I made my way through the crowd and up the hill, I began to notice something was different from previous years.  There wasn’t a single Democratic candidate in sight.  Only Republican and Tea Party candidates were on hand in Wakefield this year.

From the top of the hill by the speaker’s platform, I sipped my beer and surveyed the crowd.  Workers hoisted “Bob Marshall for Senate” signs stacked four high on tall poles like Roman centurions heralding the arrival of a new day in Virginia politics. 

Stickers saying “Guns Save Lives” were visible in all directions.  You also could see Confederate flags waving in the breeze and a tour bus emblazoned with “Jamie Radtke for Senate.”

George Allen, Radtke’s chief opponent in June’s Republican primary, slowly worked his way up the hill, artfully staying behind the Confederate flags to keep them out of the background of pictures taken as he shook hands with a sea of well-wishers.

In line to get my pile of shad, as bony as it is smoky, I stood behind a couple of old-timers from Wakefield. One said to me, “There was time when you had to be three things to attend this event: white, male and a Democrat.  Now that’s changed, except Republicans are now what the Democrats used to be.”  He was referring to the old Byrd Organization, the Democratic machine that once ruled Virginia politics.

Introduced by John Hager, a former lieutenant governor and Virginia Republican Party chairman, Allen was the keynote speaker for this year’s event.  Word was that opponent Tim Kaine was miffed because event sponsor Wakefield Ruritan had trumpeted Allen’s appearance before even approaching the Kaine campaign to see if he also would be willing to speak. 

Allen took to the podium effusively thanking Hager for his service to Virginia and even handing the Ruritan Club, a check for $3,500, which he said was in lieu of posting campaign signage along all the roads to Wakefield.  Allen’s stump speech replayed the same “Let’s make America great again” themes from previous campaigns.

While listening I looked down the hill at the gathered crowd and recalled prior years when there were two parties present.  I remembered seeing the sea of Terry McAuliffe posters during his run for governor in 2009.  Even last year, Sen. Mark Warner made his way up the hill shaking the hands of fans on both sides of the aisle.  In 2012, where are Virginia’s Democrats?

In fairness, the General Assembly still was haggling over the state budget.  Most legislators and probably most lobbyists were still in Richmond.  But, if the Republicans could staff the event with campaign workers, couldn’t the Democrats do the same?  Oh, that’s right, other than Tim Kaine in the race for U.S. Senate, no Democrats have formally announced a candidacy for statewide office. Potential gubernatorial candidates are waiting to see whether Warner runs.

If there is a traditional heartland of Virginia politics, it is most visible in this stand of pine trees in Wakefield.  While the 2012 General Assembly was a largely one-party affair, one might take comfort in the fact that the state still has two political parties, except that the two are apparently the Republicans and the Tea Party.  Oh, Democrats, where art thou?

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