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Latest twist in Georgia’s special election for US Senate

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. (Branden Camp/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)
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. (Branden Camp/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP) (The-CNN-Wire ™ & © 2020 Cable News Network, Inc., a Time Warner Company. All rights reserved)

WASHINGTON – The Rev. Raphael Warnock, a Democrat and leader of Atlanta’s historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, announced a bid for the US Senate in Georgia on Thursday, the latest twist in an increasingly competitive special election.

In his video, Warnock described his path from Savannah's Kayton Homes housing project to the pulpit where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached.

"Some might ask why a pastor thinks he should serve in the Senate," said Warnock. "I've always thought that my impact doesn't stop at the church door. That's actually where it starts."

Warnock did not mention either political party in his video. He instead introduced himself and discussed the cost of health care and the dignity of work.

But he has not shied away from taking on Donald Trump in a state the President won by five points in 2016. In 2018, after Trump crudely disparaged people from Haiti and African countries and suggested that the US should admit more people from places like Norway, Warnock reportedly said Trump needed to “repent” for his “volcanic eruption of hate speech spewing.”

Warnock will face at least two Republicans, Sen. Kelly Loeffler and Rep. Doug Collins, and other Democrats in the November election.

After Sen. Johnny Isakson retired last month due to health concerns, Georgia Republican Gov. Brian Kemp appointed Loeffler over Collins, who was Trump’s preference.

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On Wednesday, Collins announced he would run and immediately received the ire of groups aligned with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, including the Senate Leadership Fund, a Super PAC, and the National Republican Senatorial Committee. On Thursday, the Club for Growth, a conservative group that has fought some of McConnell’s favored Republican candidates in the past, announced it would spend $3 million against Collins too.

"Over the next month, Club for Growth will educate Georgia voters about Doug Collins' record on economic issues and demand that he change his ways," said its president, David Mcintosh.

The NRSC has already attacked Collins for putting the Republican seat at play. Loeffler, a political newcomer and Atlanta businesswoman, has pledged to spend a fortune to win her first race.

But Collins is a four-term congressman boasting stronger ties to the state party base dating back to his years in the state legislature. And he recently took a high-profile turn as Trump's top defender during the House's impeachment investigation.

Collins’ decision complicates the path for a Republican to hold onto the seat and increases the odds that no candidate gets a majority of the vote, forcing it to a two-person runoff. Some state lawmakers are pushing a bill to replace that system with a partisan primary, but Kemp has threatened to veto the legislation.

On Wednesday, Kevin McLaughlin, the NRSC executive director, said Collins "put two Senate seats, multiple House seats, and Georgia's 16 electoral votes in play." The congressman disputed that the prediction, saying it was "coming from the head of a Washington-based group whose bylaws require him to support all incumbents, even unelected ones."

Democrats hope the Republican infighting will throw them the special election and end a 20-year drought. The last time Georgia elected a Democrat to the Senate was in November 2000, when Sen. Zell Miller, a conservative former governor, won his race.

Besides Warnock, the other prominent Democrats in the race include Matt Lieberman, son of former Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, and Ed Tarver, who served as a US attorney during the Obama administration.

“At the start of this election cycle, Republicans believed they could take this state for granted, but not anymore,” said Helen Kalla, spokesperson for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

“This expensive, protracted brawl -- already playing out on the front page -- will force unelected mega-donor Senator Loeffler and Trump ally Congressman Collins into a race to the right that reveals just how out-of-touch both are with Georgia voters.”