The Rev. Raphael Warnock, pastor of the Atlanta church where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. preached, announced his campaign for the U.S. Senate on Thursday, challenging recently appointed Republican Kelly Loeffler.

With his well-known pulpit at the Ebenezer Baptist Church, Warnock immediately brings some Democratic star power to the race — the kind that seemed to evaporate after former gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams declined to enter it last year.

Warnock announced his run in campaign website video that begins in the subsidized Savannah housing project where he lived as a child.

“Struggling families across Georgia have it tougher than I did back then,” Warnock said, promising to raise issues such health care and worker pay to help such families.

“I’ve always thought that my impact doesn’t stop at the church door; that’s actually where it starts,” he said. “I love this country. I believe that what makes America so great, is that we’ve always had a path to make it greater.”

Loeffler was recently appointed by Gov. Brian Kemp to replace three-term GOP Sen. Johnny Isakson, who stepped down in December because of faltering health. A wealthy businesswoman and political novice, she now must defend the seat in November in an open special election for the remaining two years of Isakson’s term.

Georgia’s other Senate seat also is on the ballot, with Republican Sen. David Perdue seeking a second term. The prospect of two GOP-held seats being up for grabs in November has made the state a political battleground, where Republicans still dominate but Democrats smell opportunity as suburban voters and women move away from President Donald Trump’s GOP.

The race for Loeffler’s seat was scrambled Wednesday when Rep. Doug Collins jumped in. The northeast Georgia Republican announced his campaign on Fox News, where he’s built a national profile defending President Donald Trump. Loeffler also has voiced strong support for Trump since her appointment, and is backed by Kemp, the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Warnock is the third Democrat to join the race. Also running are Ed Tarver, a former federal prosecutor who served as U.S. attorney for Georgia’s Southern District under President Barack Obama; and Matt Lieberman, the son of former senator and vice presidential candidate Joe Lieberman.

Under Georgia’s current special election setup, the more candidates that run, the greater the odds of the race going to a January 2021 runoff between the top two finishers, which is required if no candidate receives a majority of votes in November. State House Speaker David Ralston, a longtime Collins friend, is pushing a law that would force party primaries in May. Kemp has threatened to veto that proposal.

Warnock, the son of two pastors, entered the ministry at an early age. After graduating from Morehouse College, he served at churches in Birmingham, Alabama; New York and Baltimore before becoming Ebenezer’s senior pastor in 2005, when he was 35.

Warnock hasn’t shied away from politics at Ebenezer, where Martin Luther King, Sr., and his son played key roles in the civil rights movement. Warnock hosted an interfaith meeting on climate change alongside former Vice President Al Gore and championed reforms to the nation’s criminal justice system. In 2015 he considered running for the Senate against Isakson, before deciding against it.

Three Democrats are challenging Perdue in the other race: 2017 congressional candidate Jon Ossoff, former Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson, and 2018 candidate for lieutenant governor Sarah Riggs Amico.

The Rev. Raphael G. Warnock speaks during the Martin Luther King, Jr. annual commemorative service at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta on Monday, Jan. 20, 2020. Warnock announced his campaign for the U.S. Senate on Thursday, Jan. 30, 2020 challenging recently appointed Republican Kelly Loeffler. (Branden Camp/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

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