Exclusive: Pastor of historic Ebenezer Baptist Church considers U.S. Senate run

The Rev. Raphael Warnock, the pastor of Atlanta's historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, said Thursday he is considering a run for U.S. Senate against Johnny Isakson, a move that could jolt the Republican's sleepy bid for a third term.

Warnock, 46, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he would meet with friends, family and members of his congregation this month and soon make up his mind.

"I've been around Atlanta now for 10 years now, advocating for issues," said Warnock. "The question now for me is should I continue to advocate from the outside or should I consider a venture on the inside?"

He would become the first Democrat to challenge Isakson, who recently announced he had been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, but said it would not jeopardize his ability to serve.

From his pulpit at Ebenezer, once held by Martin Luther King Jr., Warnock has blasted a controversial gun rights bill, called on Republicans to expand Medicaid, pushed for more muscular voting rights laws and led efforts to register more left-leaning black voters.

"I'm very concerned about a host of issues that have to do with public policy," Warnock said in the interview. "I am a pastor, but I see on the ground the ways that decisions made in Washington impact the people I love and care about."

Warnock would give Democrats an instant jolt in the race against Isakson, who enjoys high name recognition and popularity across the aisle. Former Gov. Roy Barnes, a Democrat, said earlier this year that "even Democrats like me like Isakson."

Although Warnock would be a first-time candidate if he chooses to run, he would have built-in advantages that other novice politicians don't enjoy. He is already frequently in front of the cameras - just last week he criticized the placement of Confederate battle flags at Ebenezer as a terroristic act - and no stranger to political activism.

If he runs, Democrats hope his unabashedly left-leaning positions help him appeal to the base and that his Ebenezer training can help attract droves of minority voters in time for the presidential race. His candidacy would likely be a striking contrast to the last Georgia Democrat who ran for Senate, Michelle Nunn, who sought to position herself as a moderate.

He would also have to decide whether he would remain on Ebenezer's pulpit during a frenzied campaign. Warnock said legally he can do so, and pointed to a long history of clergy members who have served in Congress, but he said he would have to talk to church leaders and other advisers before making that decision.

Several other Democrats have rumbled about a run, but none have made public their intentions. On the Republican side, Isakson's only announced foe is MARTA engineer and minister Derrick Grayson, who garnered 1 percent of the vote in the 2014 Senate race.

Warnock, the son of two Pentecostal pastors, became Ebenezer's youngest ever leader in 2005 at the age of 35. He was among the prominent clergy leaders who sought to stave off the 2011 execution of Troy Anthony Davis, who attracted international support over claims he was wrongly convicted of killing a Savannah police officer.

And he's been particularly outspoken on the debate over Medicaid expansion, which both Gov. Nathan Deal and Isakson have said would be too costly in the long run.

Warnock has been arrested at statehouse Moral Monday events protesting the state's Medicaid stance, a divide he also highlighted in a January 2014 televised keynote address at Ebenezer for the annual celebration of King's birthday.

At that event, where he shared the stage with both Deal and Isakson, he earned raucous applause from the packed audience when he urged Republican leaders to rethink their opposition to the expansion.

"There is no reason not to expand Medicaid, " Warnock said to cheers from the crowd. "It is ours, not for the taking. We gave the money. Let the money come back."

Update 2:54 p.m.

Isakson campaign chief strategist Heath Garrett had nothing but warm words for the possible challenger:

"We have been preparing for a serious Democratic challenger from day one of this campaign. We have a tremendous amount of respect for Pastor Warnock and look forward to a robust debate on the issues if his candidacy materializes."

The two have known each other for years. In April 2014 Isakson invited Warnock to give the opening prayer in the Senate.

But regardless of the cordial relationships -- Isakson and his 2010 foe Michael Thurmond were tight, too -- Republicans will work to paint the foe as too far left for the state. Said Georgia GOP spokesman Ryan Mahoney:

"Georgia Republicans are ready to take on whatever out of touch, left wing candidate the Democrats put on the ballot. With state of the art technology, robust data, and thousands of grassroots conservatives, we will deliver a resounding victory at the ballot box for our Republican nominee."