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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. Leslie

    REAL CHRISTIANS VOTE FOR THE PERSON WHO WANTS TO HELP THOSE IN NEED! GO OBAMA!

    January 18, 2012 at 2:10 pm |
    • Politaclretard

      Amen Leslie! I thank god for people with a brain AND a heart like yourself!

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

      Obama is only intrested in helping himself and the corporations that helped him win. The medical corporations are now profitting through Obama care, taking money that the government don't have and must barrow. Corporations get richer and Obama gets the reputaion of mother Teresa yet he gives a damn about you signing NDAA and wanting SOPA and PIPA....U R so Naiv !!!

      January 18, 2012 at 2:19 pm |
  2. BOBBY

    you know its all a front....she's a wildcat between the sheeetz

    January 18, 2012 at 2:08 pm |
    • Leslie

      TEE! HEE! You're probably right!

      January 18, 2012 at 2:11 pm |
  3. ldean5o

    I wonder if cindy would be suprised to know that she is a Mormon – if your name/family history shows up in the Mormon genealogical records that they are famous for – then you have been baptized as a Mormon. It will take you about 3 years and an act of the "quorum of twelve mormon aspostles" to have your name removed from their church membership roles, signed a person who fought 3 years and the quorum of twelve mormon apostles to have all their families name removed from the Mormon church membership roles after the mormons slaughtered a line of my family on sept 11, 1857 – now a National Landmark – known as the Mountain Meadow Massacre (begin your reseach on Momonism by renting the movie, "September Dawn" starring Jon Voight – the romance is fiction – the Mormon sermons are historically correct and verbatim). Mormons call it an "act of war" against the U.S. government... but overlook the glaring fact that our laws consider the "mormon war" an act of Treason. call it what you will – we call it murder, they call it Treason... either way.... I'm pretty sure it's illegal and punishable by death – not sainthood.

    January 18, 2012 at 2:08 pm |
  4. J. Crobuzon

    “There’s no reason to be hateful. That’s just not who we are.” OK, right. Birthers aren't Christians? We knew that.

    January 18, 2012 at 2:08 pm |
  5. Xanalori

    She endorsed Pat Robertson.... .enough said. I bet God talks to her too.

    Where's the news on 4 congressmen from SC endorsing Ron Paul?

    January 18, 2012 at 2:07 pm |
  6. korkea aika

    God just called. She said this woman is a fake.

    January 18, 2012 at 2:06 pm |
    • BOBBY

      I will need to do a cavity search to determine that for sure.

      January 18, 2012 at 2:10 pm |
    • chris

      LOL best comment thus far. Last thing we need to the ultra religous right making calls for the country.

      January 18, 2012 at 2:14 pm |
    • fsmgroupie

      she is just trying to get into Mitt's magical underwear.

      January 18, 2012 at 2:38 pm |
  7. palintwit

    Evangelicals would crawl a mile over broken glass to sniff the tire tracks of the truck that took Sarah Palin's underwear to the laundry.

    January 18, 2012 at 2:06 pm |
    • Politaclretard

      HAHAHAHA nice! 🙂

      January 18, 2012 at 2:10 pm |
    • BOBBY

      awsome!

      January 18, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
  8. ATLmatt

    i thought jesus was about helping the sick, hungry, and poor... not really what republicans are about.

    January 18, 2012 at 2:06 pm |
  9. ROD

    Am I the only person made sick by these hypocrites !

    January 18, 2012 at 2:06 pm |
    • korkea aika

      Nope, Rod. I'm right there with ya.

      January 18, 2012 at 2:07 pm |
    • Brent Slensker

      Me too!

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

      you are not alone.

      January 18, 2012 at 2:24 pm |
  10. tom clements

    Can dems go to church? No,liberals are not allowed to go to church because they are afraid they might offend someone or get caught by one of their buddies..OR, OMG, they might....gasp...PRAISE THE LORD!....NO!NO!NO!NO!

    January 18, 2012 at 2:06 pm |
    • J. Crobuzon

      “There’s no reason to be hateful. That’s just not who we are.” Hateful, vicious and nasty, see? You can lie, but your followers don't even bother.

      January 18, 2012 at 2:10 pm |
  11. truthtold

    Romney says he believes in Jesus and the Church he goes to has THE BIBLE for its text. How can he possibly not be Christian! Anyone saying his is not Christian must not be Christian themselves, John 3:16

    January 18, 2012 at 2:05 pm |
  12. Joe

    REPUBLICAN FUND RAISER = "CAN I HAVE AN AMEN?" +" WE NEED TO DO SOMETHING TO HELP OTHER PEOPLE GET FREEDOM" + IN ORDER TO STOP EVIL WE NEED TO RAISE MONEY SO PLEASE DONATE YOUR MONEY SO WE CAN MAKE SOME GOOD BANK AND WE PROMISE TO DONATE TO THE POOR

    January 18, 2012 at 2:05 pm |
  13. clarinet

    Rick & Rick & Ron, please get out of the race now before we are stuck with Romney.

    January 18, 2012 at 2:04 pm |
    • lee

      But Santorum did better than Newt in both votes so far, so Newt should get out so we don't get stuck with Mitt.

      January 18, 2012 at 2:27 pm |
  14. marc808

    Pharisees (wealthy Christian power brokers) in league with the Devil's pawn (a very good man from a very non Christian religion). These people are so consumed for power and angry over certain conservative social issues that they have lost sight of Lordship of Jesus Christ and their call to servanthood.

    January 18, 2012 at 2:04 pm |
    • nevadan

      Its "Devil's Spawn" you mental light-weight.

      January 18, 2012 at 2:16 pm |
    • jgrm4

      I just don't understand the whole 'Mormons aren't Christians' issue and I guess I never will. They loved Jesus so much that the Bible didn't even contain enough stories, so they made up another book about him just to give themselves something to read. Then they went and put him in the name of their church (remember the mainstream Mormon church, of which Romney is a member, is officially 'The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints). And they do still read the bible. I'm not Mormon myself but I just don't get what the hangup is. What else to they have to do to prove they believe in Jesus?

      January 18, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
  15. buddget

    Hey evangelicals you want a theocracy? MOVE TO IRAN

    January 18, 2012 at 2:03 pm |
  16. Dreamer

    Christian and Republican - Republican and Christian. Those two words just don't fit together, they contradict each other..

    January 18, 2012 at 2:03 pm |
    • Leslie

      They are all hypocrites! Jesus always helped the needy first!!!!!!!

      January 18, 2012 at 2:06 pm |
  17. Joe

    Another reason I've decided to leave the Republican Party, their use of religion through church leaders is no different than having a theocracy by proxy!!!!! Corruption has bleed into our churchs from corporate greed of the era of Reaganomics. Unfortunately for the Republicans their running out of small country's to declare war against in the name of human rights so they don't have a fresh supply of slaves for the next "fake" economic trickle down revolution!!!! I suppose they'll figure it out if they get elected and promise new jobs after getting reelected. It's a pretty sad day in America when the Republican politicians have turned into professional politicians that's sole focus is to get elected to implement their crony political cycle!!!!!

    GO REPUBLICANS LETS CALL SOMEONE ELSE THE "DEVIL" OR "EVIL" AS AN EXCUSE TO START A WAR TO FLEECE THE AMERICAN TAX PAYERS THROUGH THE MILITARY INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX AND THE SPOILS OF WARING AGAINST SMALL NATIONS OF SHEEP HERDERS AND FARMERS!!!!!!

    January 18, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
    • Politaclretard

      Dude you are awesome! Much respect!

      January 18, 2012 at 2:06 pm |
    • Leslie

      Thanks Joe-- Like I always say, THINK FOR YOURSELF!!!!!!!!!

      January 18, 2012 at 2:07 pm |
    • korkea aika

      Hey Joe! Well said. I'm with you there.

      January 18, 2012 at 2:08 pm |
    • Alex

      Really, and how do you reach that conclusion?

      January 19, 2012 at 6:31 am |
  18. Politaclretard

    Who cares! Don't any of you people understand? The race for the esteemed office of president has reduced itself to a popularity contest like the ones we used to have at lunch recess! All of these people are full of S@%T ! and it all reeks. They are all mega million aires who pay less taxes then we do and they could give 2 cents about us! Thats the reality! Do you think they can identify with me who works at the steel mill!? come on this is all such a waste of time!

    January 18, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
  19. ingrid

    Rob–you just incorrectly noted that it was Clinton's policies that sent jobs overseas yet note Perot in campaigning claiming he heard the whooshing of jobs going overseas? Really? Because that would mean that jobs going overseas was happening under Bush Senior BEFORE Clinton came into office.

    Regarding the story...Ms. Costa is just another faux christian warrior more interested in advancing her agenda and power than the people of SC.

    January 18, 2012 at 2:01 pm |
    • Alex

      Now how in the world could you possibly know any of that to be fact? Oh wait, you can't. That must mean your making assumptions based on your own prejudice. Real christians don't attack people for what they believe, they live their lives trying to help and be a positive influence to others. You think you are smarter than christians because you BELIEVE in evolution? It is still a theory you know. Seems to me like a 50-50 shot between the two. How does believing everything we see came from a single cell that just suddenly popped into existence possibly make you any better or smarter than those that believe in something that is meant to be so positive? Do some mess it up and use it to their advantage, obviously, as with anything man puts his hands on, but don't get that confused with what it't MEANT to be.

      January 18, 2012 at 2:25 pm |
    • Anatomically Bombed

      "Real christians don't attack people for what they believe, they live their lives trying to help and be a positive influence to others."

      What is a real Christian? Is it like a "real" Trekkie? Who gets to determine who is or is not "real"?

      The answer is there are no real Christians, just a bunch of whining babies screaming about who is or isn't in their club.

      January 18, 2012 at 2:54 pm |
  20. sksk

    “My faith is the most important thing – my husband and family are second,” (faith in the almighty dollar that is)

    Just another fool hidding thier dirty agenda behind religon

    January 18, 2012 at 2:00 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.