WAKEFIELD, VA. — Few members of Sen. Mark Warner's (D-Va.) party could headline an event in rural Virginia where National Rifle Association stickers were in popular demand and two separate confederate groups had booths set up.
But Warner, who faces a competitive reelection race this year because of a challenge from former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie, isn't like most Democrats.
“Looking at this crowd, I realize I am here as an endangered species, a Virginia Democrat,” Warner said to laughs.
Eying the crowd, where men appeared to outnumber women by a two-to-one ratio, Warner added: “Looking around the crowd that’s kind of like Republican women here as well – not many of either one of us.”
Groans and whoops followed from the conservative females in the audience.
Warner is the first Democrat in five years to headline the annual Shad Planking event, a tradition of more than six decades of free booze, spiny fish and bipartisan jokes in a pine-topped field outside of Wakefield, Va., an hour southeast of Richmond.
It was a chance for Warner to show off the bipartisan bona fides that helped him become the state's governor, and then senator. It's the same image that has some thinking he could one day be a presidential candidate.
Warner talked up his efforts to reach across the aisle.
“What makes Virginia special is that oftentimes in our politics we’ve achieved our greatest accomplishments when we actually work together,” he said, touting the budget he hammered out with Republicans when he was governor before talking about how both parties need to compromise in order to lower the national debt.
Warner is one of the more personally popular senators in the country, according to polls. He’s well-liked enough that other Democrats, including Sen. Tim Kaine (Va.) and Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe used him in campaign ads to tout their own bipartisan credentials before winning office. But Republicans are high on Gillespie, a polished and disciplined candidate with a sunny disposition and hefty fundraising rolodex.
Gillespie also showed his personable side at the event, back-slapping with ease with the crowd as his campaign passed out stickers and kettle corn. He’s off to a quick fundraising start as well, hauling in $2.4 million in the last fundraising quarter, a sign that Warner won’t have the huge spending advantage he had when he beat former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore (R) by a wide margin in 2008.
Polls show Warner has a double-digit lead, buoyed by his personal popularity and Gillespie’s low name identification. But Warner has been under 50 percent in some recent polls, a sign President Obama’s low approval ratings might hurt him. Warner refused to say if he’d campaign with Obama in the state, when asked after his speech.
Strategists in both political sides admit the other party has a strong candidate, though Republicans privately admit Gillespie is an underdog.
Gillespie wasn’t given a speaking role at the event, but knocked Warner in a speech at a nearby pre-reception hosted by a local Republican Women’s Club. That event itself is a decades-old tradition, as women and African Americans weren’t allowed at the main event until the late 1970s.
Gillespie accused Warner of voting “in lockstep with Harry Reid and President Obama throughout his time in office” and chided him for backing ObamaCare, cap and trade legislation and voting against a balanced budget amendment.
He also said Warner’s policies were hurting average families.
"Most of us don't fill our tank, we put down $10 or $20 and squeeze out as much as we can from the pump. And when Mark Warner took office you could get 10 and a half gallons for $20. And today, it's less than six. And that's one of the reasons people are feeling squeezed — the lower wages, the lost jobs, the higher energy prices and the higher healthcare prices," he said.
Warner pushed back.
“The amount of grief I took from Democrats on putting together a bipartisan budget plan with the Gang of Six reflects the fact of an independent approach,” he told The Hill.
On a day of political theater masked by bipartisan comity, there was one thing both sides could agree on: No one was there for the food.
Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) told The Hill he’d been going to Shad Plankings since the 1980s, and couldn’t remember the last time he’d had a bite of the oily, bony fish, joking his annual tradition was to stop at a nearby diner on the way in.
His assessment was reinforced by former Sen. George Allen (R-Va.), who’s been coming for as many years.
“If you’re hungry, you should’ve had something before you got here,” Allen joked to The Hill. “You’ll get plenty of free beer … you don’t come here for the food, you come here for the camaraderie.”