January 18th, 2012
11:20 AM ET

Evangelical for Mitt: A South Carolina power broker promotes the frontrunner

By Dan Gilgoff, CNN.com Religion Editor

Tune in Thursday at 8 p.m. ET for the CNN/Southern Republican Presidential Debate hosted by John King and follow it on Twitter at #CNNDebate. For real-time coverage of the South Carolina primary, go to CNNPolitics.com or to the CNN apps or CNN mobile web site.

Myrtle Beach, South Carolina (CNN) – You’ve probably never heard of her, but Cindy Costa’s tablemates at a Sunday prayer breakfast here hint at her influence.

Inside a hotel ballroom bulging with 400 socially conservative activists, Costa is seated with the headliners: White House hopeful Rick Perry and political operative Ralph Reed.

And when Rick Santorum and his wife Karen arrive at the Sheraton’s Ballroom E about 10 minutes into the program, they join her table, too.

It’s doubtful that many of the press photographers descending around Costa to snap pictures of Santorum and Perry, heads bowed in prayer, could identify her. But the power players seated around Costa know she’s a South Carolina Republican institution.

“In a critical early primary state, Cindy has bridged the historic divide between faith-based grassroots activists of the party and the old guard,” says Reed, who’s known her for 20 years. “That can be a much more difficult mating dance than it appears.”

Indeed, with the South Carolina presidential primary just days away, Costa – perhaps more than anyone in the state – embodies the mix of establishment party power and evangelical fervor that will determine the outcome here.

If she has her way, that outcome will be a victory for the candidate whose name she wears in a bright blue pin in her lapel: Mitt Romney. Costa says her support for the candidate is largely rooted in her evangelical Christian faith.

For 15 years, Costa has served on the 150-member Republican National Committee, the party’s governing body. But she says it’s her relationship with God, not politics, that guides her life.

“Happy New Year. God bless you!” she tells Republican activists swinging by her table at the prayer breakfast to say hello.

“My faith is the most important thing – my husband and family are second,” the mother of four says later, crossing the street outside the Sheraton to pick up her credentials for the following night’s presidential debate.

For Costa, Romney is a brother in Christ and a devoted family man – and the one candidate with the intellect and organization to defeat President Obama. “If Romney gets the right Congress,” she tells many activists she meets, “you’re looking at another Ronald Reagan.”

And yet Costa is clear-eyed about the challenges the former Massachusetts governor faces among many Bible Belt evangelicals, who are expected to constitute around 60% of voters in the Saturday primary here. Many are wary of Romney’s religion and past support for abortion rights.

Despite Romney’s strong showing in recent South Carolina polls, more than a few activists at the Sheraton are backing Santorum, the dyed-in-the wool culture warrior.

Whether Costa can coax people like them over to her side will go a long way in determining whether South Carolina anoints Romney as the all-but-certain Republican nominee or derails his march to the nomination, handing a victory to Santorum, Perry or Newt Gingrich.

No one knows that more than the Romney campaign, with senior campaign adviser Eric Fehrnstrom calling Costa a “good friend to Mitt and Ann Romney.”

“She's very down to earth, honest and sincere,” Fehrnstrom says. “Having her on the team is a big boost for us.”

For Costa, any concerns about Romney’s Mormonism were put to rest at a 2008 forum she attended in upstate South Carolina, an evangelical stronghold, at which the candidate spent half a day taking questions from pastors.

“They asked who he thought Jesus Christ was, and his answer was that Jesus Christ was his Lord and savior,” Costa says. “And I said, ‘OK, here we are. That’s what I believe.’”

Many evangelicals part company with Costa on that point. Though Mormons consider themselves to be Christian, surveys show that about half of white evangelicals don't think they are.

“I will let Romney define who he is,” Costa says. “If he says Jesus Christ is his Lord and savior, who am I to say ‘No, he’s not?’”

Roots of Mormon support

There are other reasons Costa is keen on Romney and comfortable with his religion. A day spent campaigning with Mitt Romney’s wife, Ann, and a Romney daughter-in-law, Mary, in 2008 made Costa’s support for the candidate personal.

The committeewoman crisscrossed South Carolina with Ann and Mary on a campaign bus, with Ann delivering speeches at stops along the way.

“Relationships are a powerful thing,” Costa says. “When I was on the bus with them, I just felt like I was with people in my church. I felt like they were no different than me.”

Four years ago, plenty of other South Carolina evangelicals appeared to feel differently, with Romney placing fourth behind John McCain, Mike Huckabee and Fred Thompson.

Costa, for her part, tends to be open to people from other religions. Her stepfather, who she has called “Dad” since he moved in with her family when she was 2, is Jewish.

Her mother had Southern Baptist roots, and the couple largely ignored both traditions, making for a secular household. But when an aunt took 7-year-old Cindy to a Baptist church one Sunday, she was hooked – though not necessarily on Jesus.

Costa says she grew up poor – her stepdad was a mail sorter – and she fell hard for the church’s supplies of crayons and orange juice.

The Charleston church’s Sunday School teacher, whom Costa knew as Miss Hopkins, would pick her up from home and take her to church every Sunday morning for the next decade.

“She saw a child that needs support in a household where she’d not been given that opportunity,” Costa says. “She will get credit for me in heaven.”

Costa’s dad didn’t bring up his Judaism much, except when his adolescent stepdaughter once asked why he hadn’t formally adopted her. “I didn’t want you to live with a Jewish name because I know it could be a really negative thing,” he told her. “It could affect who would even date you.”

Costa was grateful: “What great love that he was looking out for me.”

‘A culture in a moral decline’

Costa wasn’t too interested in politics until she saw Ronald Reagan. It was 1976, and he’d come to the Charleston County Republican Convention seeking support for his bid to wrest the party’s nomination from President Ford.

Smitten by Reagan, the 20-year-old Costa was miffed to find she couldn’t get a seat as a delegate at the convention. The reason: Her voting precinct had never been organized.

So Costa vowed to organize it, setting in motion her decades-long rise through county, state and national party machinery.

A stay-at-home mom in the 1980s, her budding activism was motivated largely by her born-again faith and her growing family. The fledgling “family values” movement, bent on restoring school prayer and overturning Roe v. Wade, spoke to her.

When Costa stumbled upon Pat Robertson’s “700 Club” on TV, she thought she’d found President Reagan’s successor: “He was the first one that seared into my heart that we were a culture in a moral decline.

“That was around the time we found out about AIDS, and Robertson was telling people you can’t do this,” she says, referring to homosexuality. “It seems like a simple thing, but no one wants to say that because it could hurt someone’s feelings.”

Costa volunteered for Robertson’s 1988 presidential campaign. Though the candidate faded after a strong finish in Iowa, he put evangelicals like Costa on the political map.

She would go on to help launch the South Carolina chapter of the Christian Coalition, which rose from the ashes of Robertson’s campaign, and she became state prayer chairman for the group in the 1990s.

Her eldest daughter, Jenny, remembers watching her parents being interviewed on NBC News on Election Night 1994 about the swelling ranks of evangelical voters. Hours later, Republicans took control of the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years.

“There were some evangelicals at the time saying that politics is dirty and they should stay out of it,” says Jenny Costa Honeycutt, now a Charleston lawyer who was 15 at the time. “And my parents were willing to stand up and be heard. That was a big night for me.”

For Cindy Costa, the moral drift that Pat Robertson discerned wasn’t limited to politics. She saw it in her church life, too.

The same year she joined Robertson’s campaign, the Costas left their longtime Episcopal church amid talk that Episcopalians would start ordaining gay clergy.

“Once you do that, you have to ordain any sinful person,” says Costa, who wound up co-founding a nondenominational, evangelical-style church with her husband Louis and others in James Island, just south of Charleston. “The Bible is very clear on that.

“You start hacking up the Bible and take out this little thing you don’t like and that little thing, and you have something that’s not the Bible anymore.”

All together now

If she sometimes talks like a culture warrior, Costa hardly looks the part.

A former Mrs. South Carolina who is often introduced as a “true Charleston belle” at political events, Costa has high cheekbones, shoulder-length blonde hair and looks at least a decade younger than her 56 years.

The wife of a plastic surgeon, she says she's "benefitted from her husband's services" but won't discuss specifics.

She favors black scarves, knee-high boots and Ann Taylor dresses that are inexpensive enough that she can discard them with a clear conscience after a single season.

Costa, in other words, has the style of a card-carrying member of the national political establishment, which she officially joined in 1996 when she was first elected as one of the state’s three members of the RNC. (She is currently seeking a fifth four-year term.)

Like many of the political rebels who campaigned for Robertson against George H.W. Bush almost 25 years ago, Costa is now a party insider, balancing ideological stances on abortion with practical concerns like party unity.

“That’s a big change,” says Reed, who led the Christian Coalition in the 1990s. “These are no longer folks with funny hats whose noses are pressed against the glass of the party. Now they’re on the inside, they’re the party leaders.”

At a pre-debate reception on Monday sponsored by Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition, Costa watches Reed and South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint throw out rhetorical red meat for a crowd of conservative donors before taking the floor herself.

But Costa strikes a decidedly different tone, calling on fellow Republicans to start thinking about the need for party unity after the brutal primary season passes.

“The eyes of the nation are on us tonight,” she says. “So behave yourselves, and smile for the cameras.”

Afterward, walking to a Faith and Freedom Coalition rally at which she’ll lead the Pledge of Allegiance before the five remaining Republican presidential candidates deliver remarks before the debate, Costa says the quest for unity is a hallmark of her life that’s rooted in the Bible.

She explains how she and her husband apply the principal at the plastic surgery center they run in Charleston, asking employees to resolve differences among themselves before coming to them for help. Cindy is the center's business administrator.

Perhaps nothing illustrates Costa’s pursuit of party unity – a preoccupation for any establishment leader - as much as her support for Mitt Romney, who many grassroots conservatives distrust in part because of his establishment backing.

After watching Romney deliver a well-received speech at the pre-debate rally, she darts off to be interviewed by a young evangelical radio host who broadcasts in the most solidly evangelical part of South Carolina, around Spartanburg and Greenville.

The host, Josh Kimbrell, is a Santorum supporter but asks Costa to talk about Romney.

“I had the opportunity to do a bus trip across the state with Ann Romney, and it was a real bonding experience,” she says, leaning into the microphone and wearing a pair of big headphones upside down so it doesn't mess up her hair before the debate.

“I’ve come to respect the family tremendously and just know he’d be a great president.”

When Kimbrell asks what she expects to happen after Saturday’s primary, Costa again picks up the banner of unity, sounding about as far away from a Pat Robertson culture warrior as you could imagine.

“As Republicans, we need to be winsome in our message, be kind and loving,” she says.

“There’s no reason to be hateful. That’s just not who we are.”

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Christianity • Politics • South Carolina

soundoff (1,003 Responses)
  1. JOE

    I really can't comprehend how anybody could vote republican especially after the pain and heartache the GOP has brought upon us. Whether Romney, Santorum or Ginrich appeal to you, the reality is that these candidates all continue to support and embrace the very same foreign and domestic policies that led to our downfall at home and abroad.

    January 18, 2012 at 1:59 pm |
  2. faboge

    Romney is no Reagan! Reagan was not on both sides of every issue, was an ordinary man connected to everyday people!
    Romney is the elite of the elites! He has absolutely nothing for anyone making 100,000 a year or less!

    January 18, 2012 at 1:59 pm |
  3. J. Crobuzon

    Another doctor's wife with a hobby. Most of them open ticky-tacky stores at the mall.

    January 18, 2012 at 1:58 pm |
  4. Chuck

    I can't believe all the garbage I'm reading. Some of you take this Lady's religous beliefs and you flush them like trash. Have you no moral character? The article was simply stating the fact that the Lady came from humble beginnings and has by God's grace tranformed her life into something she can be proud of ! God gives all men "free will " so do with it as you may. But don't be envious of anyone who has bettered themselves with his blessings. You see he will bless all of us in different ways,but first we must ask. You can't get to the father without first knowing his son. He sent his son,his only son to come down from heaven and die on the cross, resurrected back to heaven so that all of us could have everlasting life. If we don't believe that then there is no heaven for us only hell. It has been happening for thousands of years. People always want to doubt God and his church. If any of you don't believe then certainly we need to pray that you will be led to Christ. All of us are sinners and the only way we are not condemned to hell is Christ and him alone. So if you don't know him please get to. Life is hard enough without condemning each other over have and have nots. Envy is the way of the evil one. We are living in some desperate times. We should spend it finding answers not fighting ourselves. God Bless You!!

    January 18, 2012 at 1:58 pm |
    • J. Crobuzon

      "Envy is the way of the evil one" You must envy us our freedom to not have to vote as we are ordered. Have fun voting for Mittens.

      January 18, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
    • Cedar Rapids

      I will trash anyone that thinks that nasty slimy piece of garbage Pat Robertson is a good guy.

      January 18, 2012 at 2:03 pm |
  5. Thomas

    Amazing ,

    South Carolina supporting a candidate who avoided military service , and who's five sons avoided military service.

    The day they brought old Dixie down .

    January 18, 2012 at 1:58 pm |
    • Mark

      His dad was Mexican. i want to see Romney's birth certificate.

      January 18, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
  6. cmxsmitty

    Ladies and gentlemen, I want to say this very clearly. If the people of the United States - all across America, in their churches and in their civic groups and in their legislatures - decide that they're not going to allow the Supreme Court to dominate their lives in the fashion that it has been in this nation, the Supreme Court does not have the power to change that. They are not going to be able to overturn the will of a hundred million American people. And I think the time has come that we throw off the shackles of this dictatorship that's been imposed upon us.
    We had a war in 1776 that set us free from the shackles of the arbitrary rule of the British crown, and I think what's going on in Corbin, Kentucky, boy, those people like to live free. And I think the time has come that we do that. – Pat Robertson

    January 18, 2012 at 1:58 pm |
    • J. Crobuzon

      If he wasn't senile, that would be treason. But no one ever listens to that old fossil.

      January 18, 2012 at 2:01 pm |
  7. Joe

    These evangelical Christian leaders are just political operatives being paid to sell their flock political rhetoric so the Republicans can use the power to benefit big corporations!!!!! Wake up Christians you don't need a Evangelical leader to be a great spiritual person, all you need is your own faith & action.

    January 18, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
  8. Blame Bush

    Hey Wasp, that's a great line, similar to what Sinclair Lewis said decades ago:

    "When Fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross."

    January 18, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
  9. riley

    President Romney!!!! I like it!!!

    January 18, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
    • J. Crobuzon

      I like "Unsuccessful Candidate Romney" even better. Please run him against Obama. Easy win for the good guys!

      January 18, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
  10. Mark

    I just don't understand why politicians are courting the evangelicals and religious right. Did we suddenly become a theocracy and no one told me? Their appearance at these faith based events looks to me like goverment endorsing a state supported religion, one that is white and Christian.

    January 18, 2012 at 1:56 pm |
    • Lipityloo

      Stats actually prove that in Christianity that whites are the minority... The christian majority are blacks and latinos.

      January 18, 2012 at 1:58 pm |
  11. Blame Bush

    The Costas are truly scary people, they want to turn the USA into a theocracy and should be stopped.

    Keep religion OUT of our government, public laws, and politics.

    January 18, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
  12. NoMoreGOPT

    These Damned Evangelicals have way too much power. I think they should lose their Tax Free status and forced to register as a lobbyist organization for all their religious organizations for getting involved in politics, trying to change the outcome of political races.

    January 18, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
    • Mark

      I agree with you and the key word is power. Religion has been used as a tool to divide and oppress people. Kings ruled by "divine right". It was how those in power used religion that prompted our forefathers to separate church and state. The abuse of religious power in Europe and England was still fresh in their minds.

      January 18, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
    • J. Crobuzon

      Tax churches and restore prosperity to this country.

      January 18, 2012 at 2:03 pm |
  13. GolfmanJ

    Test, Davetharave – you should try reading the book of Mormon before you comment on it. Would you advocate an atheist to read the Bible before he/she comments on it? Same thing.

    January 18, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
  14. WASP

    ok now as i understand it this born again evangical had plastic surgery: scriptures against such things.

    Genesis 1:31, "And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good. And the evening and the morning were the sixth day."

    1 Corinthians 6:19-20: "What? know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own? For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God's."

    so she is a hypocrite backing an idiot rattling swords from here burning pulpit. best saying i ever heard from a true christian........"if you want to find god look in the bar, if you want to find the devil go to church."

    January 18, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
  15. I'm The Best!

    I was just going to vote for whoever pays me. I'm planning on sending a letter to all the candidates saying they can buy my vote and I'll vote for the one that sends the most money. It's what they do with the lobbyists so why should they get MY vote for free

    January 18, 2012 at 1:54 pm |
  16. schnikers

    No one asked me but this is a bad move – of course what the heck – I wasn't voting for him anyway.

    January 18, 2012 at 1:54 pm |
  17. Doug

    I am a Mormon and I believe that only through the merits and grace of Jesus Christ can I be saved. Nothing I can do of myself will grant me salvation, but through Christ. So, no matter what other faiths say about Mormonism, I'm a Christian and I expect that Jesus Christ will accept me as much as any other soul. I'm sure other Mormons can say the same. I also expect that by NOT slandering other religions, as is done to Mormons by so-called followers of Christ, I am living Christian principles better than some.

    January 18, 2012 at 1:54 pm |
    • Lipityloo

      You actually would be wrong, or simply know nothing about Mormonism.... educate yourself, believe what you want, but dont live blindly.

      January 18, 2012 at 1:59 pm |
    • Tom

      I'm sure invisible sky faires are going to come down and judge you.. Yeah right...

      January 18, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
    • Doug

      Lipityloo – I can reasonably guess that I've been a Mormon and well-versed in it longer than you've been fighting against it.

      January 18, 2012 at 2:17 pm |
  18. Darryl

    If Ron Paul or Romney are on the ticket, I'll vote Republican (as I've done my entire life except for the last election). If neither of them get the ticket, its Obama again. Maybe this is why Obama doesn't want Romney to win the ticket...

    January 18, 2012 at 1:52 pm |
    • Kuske

      Anybody else notice the links between the church and those who pay less taxes. Birds of a feather.

      January 18, 2012 at 2:01 pm |
  19. Cedar Rapids

    She is a Pat Robertson fan? That says all you need to know right there.

    January 18, 2012 at 1:52 pm |
  20. Normal

    She sounds like a born-again Tammy, who got busted for being on the take. She took to much.
    Ronny Reagan, was a pot smoking gay actor. She says Romney could be like Reagan. What do you think of that?.

    January 18, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.