The race to fill John F. Kerry’s US Senate seat is on the verge of taking final shape, with growing anxiety among Republicans that Scott Brown may sit out the contest and a pending decision by US Representative Stephen F. Lynch on whether to challenge his congressional colleague Edward J. Markey in a Democratic primary.
Brown, who many had expected would be eager to get back into the US Senate after his defeat in the fall, has yet to make a decision about his political future and is exploring private-sector options, according to those who have spoken with him.
Lynch, a former union leader, has been traveling the state talking to labor allies and legislators about a potential run and has signaled that he will make a final decision next week, just after the Senate’s expected confirmation of Kerry on Tuesday as President Obama’s secretary of state.
“I haven’t made up my mind,’’ Lynch said Friday, amid swirling speculation among party activists and close associates of the 11-year congressional veteran that he will make the run. “Things are still fluid.’’
Just a day earlier, the strong message from the Lynch camp was that he would definitely be announcing his campaign next week.
Brown, meanwhile, continues to keep a low profile, declining to talk to reporters about the race. Reached by the Globe Friday, Brown immediately hung up the phone, saying he was too busy to talk.A prominent member of his finance committee, who did not want to be quoted by name, said he had not heard from Brown since the November election. The former senator appears not to be raising any money or carrying out any political activities to set up a campaign.
A decision by Brown not to run would shift the trajectory of a race that has already grabbed national headlines and would have been one of the marquee campaigns in American politics this year.
On the Democratic side, Lynch’s entry into the race would be a major blow to efforts by state and national Democrats, including Kerry, to rally party resources behind Markey. The veteran Malden congressman was the first, and so far the only, candidate to jump into the race. Democrats had hoped to avoid a divisive primary that would leave a bruised nominee with depleted resources heading into a general election.
In a Democratic primary, Markey would initially have a strong financial advantage, with more than $3.1 million in the bank. He also has the backing of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and its national fund-raising apparatus. Lynch, who has ramped up his fund-raising efforts in recent weeks, has close to $800,000.
A poll of a hypothetical general election matchup released Friday by an affiliate of MassInc, a nonpartisan think tank, shows Brown with a strong lead over Markey, 53 percent to 31 percent. The poll did not measure a potential Brown-Lynch race. More than half of Massachusetts voters, 55 percent, view the former senator favorably. Few had an opinion or had heard of Markey or Lynch.
Brown’s silence about the race has prompted a great deal of concern within his party’s ranks.
“Most Republicans think if Brown runs he has a good chance to win, but once you get beyond Brown among the potential candidates, the odds are pretty long,’’ said Rob Gray, a Massachusetts GOP strategist. “There is certainly some anxiety because this would be a good chance for a Republican to win a statewide race and those chances don’t come very often.’’
But Brown has told political associates he may prefer to take a break from politics this year and instead consider a run for governor next year. The associates said the prospect of launching another campaign, when he could instead be using his stature to land a lucrative job, is the major reason he has considered forgoing a chance to return to the Senate.
If Brown were to win the special election, which will be held at the end of June, he would almost immediately have to gear up for a 2014 reelection campaign, his fourth emotionally taxing race in nearly four years. The associates say that particular issue has weighed heavily on him and his family.
A Brown victory in June would mean a potential 2014 race against Joseph P. Kennedy III, the newest member of the politically powerful Kennedy family to enter politics. Democrats have said Kennedy would be the party’s most likely choice for that election if Brown were to win the seat this year.
If Brown does not run this year and Republicans cannot find a prominent replacement, the Democratic primary election in May could end up being the major electoral event that decides who will be the state’s newest US senator.
Brown’s absence in the race would be a major blow to Republicans hoping to capture Kerry’s seat and give the party a closer shot at taking control of the US Senate in the 2014 mid-term congressional elections.
Todd Domke, a Massachusetts Republican strategist, said Brown’s hesitancy is rattling the party’s nerves, not only in Massachusetts but nationally.
“The national GOP needs Brown to run for the Senate,’’ Domke said. “Winning that seat would not only help the GOP win control of the Senate in 2014, but also raise hope of a turnaround for the party.’’
Domke said former governor William F. Weld is the “most plausible’’ backup if Brown does not run. Weld, who served from 1991 to 1997, would have to reintroduce himself to the Massachusetts electorate. But Domke said his iconoclastic character, which has had broad appeal in the past, could draw strong support from key voting blocs.
“He’s still pretty popular and has run for the Senate before,’’ Domke said, referring to Weld’s 1996 challenge to Kerry. “Weld has proven he is independent and bipartisan. With his quirky sense of humor, candor, and unpredictability, he’d be a fun candidate.”
Weld did not return calls seeking comment. But his associates said it is highly unlikely the former governor, who returned to Boston this fall after living in New York for a dozen years, would plunge back into politics.
“He has no interest,’’ said Stephen Tocco, a partner with Weld at ML Strategies, a public affairs consulting firm. “He is too busy growing his practice and settling into Massachusetts.’’
Another high-profile Republican — Kerry Healey, the former lieutenant governor — did not rule out a Senate candidacy, saying only that it is “premature to say’’ if she would be interested in the seat if Brown does not run.
Lynch, a moderate and anti-abortion South Boston Democrat, would face an uphill battle with the more liberal Markey because of the heavily liberal turnout in the party’s primary.
Lynch has also had his differences with Democrats. In March 2010, Lynch sided with Republicans in voting against President Obama’s health care law, rebuffing entreaties from Obama and Victoria Kennedy. Lynch said he opposed the bill because it included a so-called Cadillac tax on expensive insurance plans, and did not allow states to adopt government-run insurance plans.