Rev. Raphael Warnock of Ebenezer Baptist Church (Credit: Warnock for Georgia)

ATLANTA – Rev. Raphael Warnock, the senior pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, Martin Luther King Jr.’s congregation, has entered the race for U.S. senator from Georgia.

A Democrat, Warnock joins the fray against appointed Republican U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler and, now, GOP Congressman Doug Collins. They will compete to fill the last two years of former U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson’s term, after the longtime Georgia statesman resigned at year’s end due to health issues.

In a video Thursday morning, Warnock traced his life’s journey from the Kayton Homes housing projects in Savannah to Ebenezer’s historic pulpit. His first advertisement focused on social issues like health-care expansion and voter registration, marking a messaging contrast to Loeffler and Collins’ strong support for President Donald Trump.

“I’ve committed my whole life to service and helping people realize their highest potential,” Warnock said. “I’ve always thought that my impact doesn’t stop at the church door. That’s actually where it starts.”

Warnock joins Matt Lieberman, son of former U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, and Ed Tarver, a former U.S. attorney and state senator from Augusta, on the Democratic side of the contest slate.

The race to succeed Isakson has become the marquee contest of an already intense year for Georgia politics featuring campaigns for both U.S. Senate seats and Trump’s re-election.

Republican U.S. Sen. David Perdue faces three Democratic challengers in his bid for a second term.

Three seats for the U.S. House of Representatives are wide open, with the incumbents either stepping aside or seeking election elsewhere. Democratic state leaders are also pushing to flip the Georgia House in their favor.

Warnock has presided over Ebenezer Baptist since 2005, when he became the historic church’s youngest senior pastor at age 35. He considered running against Isakson in 2016 but decided against it.

While sticking to his humble upbringing in Thursday’s message, Warnock in recent speeches has gone on the offensive against Trump and his policies. He has also lashed out against voter suppression, gender and economic inequality, racial injustice and student debt.

Speaking at the Democratic Party of Georgia’s annual fundraising dinner in October, he said that “there is an attack on the very soul of our country and all that it represents.”

“In this moment in our nation, we need political leadership with a moral bearing,” Warnock said. “This is an unusual time and we must be about the unusual business of winning back our democracy, standing for what is best and truly right in the American spirit.”

Warnock’s announcement drew an immediate backlash from the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which backs Loeffler as the incumbent. Its spokesman, Nathan Brand, called Warnock’s platform too radical.

“Warnock’s far-left positions are out of touch with Georgia voters and stand in sharp contrast with Kelly Loeffler’s conservative values,” Brand said.

The Republican group also jabbed at Collins on Wednesday after his own campaign announcement. A Baptist pastor and U.S. Air Force Reserve chaplain, Collins risks splitting Georgia’s conservative voters at a critical moment when Democratic leaders see a path to victory.

As it stands, all the candidates from every party in the U.S. Senate race will compete in a free-for-all “jungle” primary scheduled for November. That format would likely lead to a runoff in January if left unchanged.

But a bill in the Georgia General Assembly could return the election to a traditional party primary, which would set up a more decisive contest between the Republican and Democratic nominees.

The measure, House Bill 757, looks to be headed soon for a vote on the House floor.