Top members of the Democratic establishment on Friday threw their weight behind the Senate candidacy of US Representative Edward Markey in what appeared to be a coordinated effort by party leaders to close ranks behind the congressman and avoid a divisive primary.
Senator John Kerry, President Obama’s nominee for secretary of state, along with Victoria Reggie Kennedy, the widow of the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy, and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee all issued statements of support for Markey.
Markey, a 36-year House veteran from Malden, announced this week that he would run for Kerry’s seat if the senator is confirmed.
The rallying of support behind him sends a clear sign to other potential Democratic candidates, namely Representatives Michael Capuano of Somerville and Stephen Lynch of South Boston, to stay out of the race.
Both representatives were bristling at the bold move Friday night, and offered no indication that they would back off any consideration of entering the race, according to a top Democratic operative who was in contact with both camps.
The unusual attempt to clear the field for Markey reflects the Democratic leaders’ eagerness to avoid a primary battle that would drain resources and potentially create bitterness within the party.
Democrats are still reeling from Senator Scott Brown’s upset victory in January 2010, after a tough Democratic primary fight. And there is much concern among Democrats that Brown, who was defeated by Elizabeth Warren in November, has a good chance of winning Kerry’s seat in a special election with low voter turnout, should he decide to run.
Brown’s staff did not respond to requests for comment Friday.
Kerry’s statement about Markey, saying he would “support his decision to run for the United States Senate,” came as a surprise in state Democratic circles. He heaped praise on the Massachusetts representative, but stopped short of an outright endorsement of his candidacy. Still, an aide to the senator confirmed that Kerry would vote for Markey in a special election.
Less than an hour after Kerry’s statement was released two others followed: one from Victoria Kennedy, and another from Colorado Senator Michael Bennet, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which raises money for candidates around the country. Both offered strong support to Markey, 66, using language similar to that of Kerry.
“He will bring proven experience in the workings of Congress to his service in the Senate, and that is an enormous asset and benefit for the people of Massachusetts,” Kennedy said.
Peter Ubertaccio, chairman of the political science department at Stonehill College, noted how unusual it is for the senatorial committee to jump into a party primary fight.
“This is lightning speed, which indicates some coordination and conversations in the background,’’ Ubertaccio said.
When the committee does support a specific candidate, he said, it usually waits to see which of the contenders proves the strongest.
“They are obviously trying to make it clear to prospective challengers to Markey that it will be an uphill battle if they get in,’’ Ubertaccio said.
The overall effect of the endorsements is not yet clear. Markey, the only candidate to officially declare his candidacy so far, begins the race with a healthy $3.1 million in his campaign account, and the committee endorsement would mean even more resources.
But his standing with some of his fellow Massachusetts Democratic colleagues has been strained, particularly after he used his seniority to reshape congressional districts last year. His attempts to empty the field could backfire.
Capuano pushed back strongly against the notion that the endorsements would have an effect on his decision.
“It seems that the big names of our party are trying to choose our nominee for us,’’ Capuano, said in a statement. The congressman, who spent Friday huddled with political advisers to assess his candidacy, added, “When I became mayor of Somerville, the establishment wasn’t with me. When I became a member of Congress, the establishment wasn’t with me. If I make this run it will be the same way — from the streets up, not from the elite down.”
A spokesman for Lynch said the representative could not be immediately reached for comment.
Governor Deval L. Patrick, who has the legal power to appoint a caretaker to fill the Senate seat until an election is held, showed no signs of getting involved in the Democratic race.
“Congressman Markey is a wonderful partner in the House and would be a wonderful partner in the Senate, but my focus is on appointing an interim senator upon Senator Kerry’s confirmation,’’ Patrick said late Friday. “In the fullness of time, I look forward to supporting the Democratic nominee, whoever he or she may be.”
By law, the governor must set a date for the election within 145 to 160 days after a vacancy in the seat occurs. If Kerry’s confirmation by the Senate runs smoothly, the primary election is expected to be held in the spring, with a general election six weeks later, probably in June.
Kerry, who would be moving into a sensitive position as secretary of state, chose his words carefully Friday, even as he emerged as the first to openly support Markey.
“While I began last week to formally step out of politics — and it’s very important that I respect the apolitical nature of the post I hope to soon occupy — as Massachusetts’ senior senator today and as a colleague of Ed Markey’s for 28 years, I’m excited to learn of and support his decision to run for the United States Senate,’’ Kerry said in a statement.
The senator’s flattering words are atypical of Kerry, who has not often involved himself in primary battles.
Kerry called Markey, a member of the House since 1976 and dean of the state’s delegation, “one of the most experienced and capable legislators in the entire Congress,” adding, “it would be an almost unprecedented occasion for such an accomplished legislator to join the Senate able to hit the ground running on every issue of importance to Massachusetts.”
The senator also applauded Markey’s long congressional record. “He’s passionate about the issues that Ted Kennedy and I worked on as a team for decades, whether it’s health care or the environment and energy or education,’’ Kerry said.
Frank Phillips can be reached at email@example.com.