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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. Live Free88

    The Evangelicals have hijacked the Republican party. The problem with bringing religion into power is that it may not be the religion you want. Personally my religion still has "Thou shalt not kill" in the ten commandments. The evangelical GOP candidates we have running now are just itching to go kill some Muslims. I seems religious tolerance exorcised by the evangelicals is limited to white Christianity.

    January 18, 2012 at 2:29 pm |
    • tony

      I'd vote for the first politician to make all LYING illegal (commandment #9). And with a punishment to equal the effect of the lie.

      January 18, 2012 at 2:38 pm |
  2. Joe

    Cindy Costa's = Modern day "Cruella Deville" with a religious marketing strategy that probably study's the black arts at night!!! Nice "Witch"

    January 18, 2012 at 2:28 pm |
  3. Thinkformyself

    I cannot believe that we are talking about religion – this is 2012, not 1950!

    I am so glad that I am a democrat, the party of people who actually use their brains to make decisions, not old fashioned dogma.

    January 18, 2012 at 2:28 pm |
  4. riptin

    Talk about hypicritcle and desperation, The evangelicles will sell there soul and conform to mormonism.in order to win an election. It reminds me of hitler do what ever is necessary to advance there power over humanity.

    January 18, 2012 at 2:28 pm |
  5. Sam

    It truly is a shame that Cindy would never know how many intelligent people disagree with her assessment!

    January 18, 2012 at 2:28 pm |
  6. Greg

    fyi....interesting article on some positive points about Romney and one of the key Evangelical Christian Leaders in South Carolina supporting him.

    January 18, 2012 at 2:27 pm |
    • snowyowl

      Where did you find those positive points about Romney?

      January 18, 2012 at 2:29 pm |
    • Ricke

      Evangelical power broker is an oxymoron. If she is truly Christian then she would not seek worldly power.

      January 18, 2012 at 2:30 pm |
  7. tannim

    So the only real question is this:

    Which one is she really sleeping with?

    January 18, 2012 at 2:27 pm |
  8. Dr.Fritz

    Mormons have a secret doctrine and are a cult. Amongst their beliefs – about which they lie to outsiders – is that (their) god lives on a planet called Kolob at the center of the galaxy and has many wives. Dishonestly, for PR reasons, they call themselves Christians.

    January 18, 2012 at 2:26 pm |
    • Dr. What

      Learn more, and since you seem to be a religious person, try to involve sincere prayer in the process.

      January 18, 2012 at 2:35 pm |
    • rm

      A cult is right.

      Can you imagine if they claimed the Jesus was born of a virgin and then 'resurrected' from the dead?

      None of it is logical.

      January 18, 2012 at 2:38 pm |
    • obsthetimes

      There is this cult called Christianity that revolved around a messiah named Jesus. This gentleman carpenter who regularly cured polio , apparently was the son of god and rose from the dead after three days; ascended heaven where he has been living for 2000 years. Through his body sacrifice and blood believers will be saved and attain salvation. All of the christian cultists are waiting for his return. It will happen any day.
      Question:How can you believe the above when faced with the timeless enormity of the universe? Stop the arrogance of dissing other faiths.

      January 18, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
    • obsthetimes

      Honestly this sound more modern and is much more believable to me than traditional Christianity. Its entirely possible that the god like aliens from Kolob visited earth and started us off..

      January 18, 2012 at 2:45 pm |
    • Darla

      That's really desperate. I mean the accusation that Mormons "lie" as a practice to others. With that falsehood–that's what it is–you've become the liar.

      January 18, 2012 at 3:33 pm |
  9. snowyowl

    "Cindy Costa embodies the mix of establishment GOP power and born-again fervor that will determine the outcome of Saturday's primary in South Carolina. And the pin on her lapel says Romney."

    In other words, she's a typical GOP Stepford wife.

    January 18, 2012 at 2:26 pm |
  10. Hikerstud

    This 2000 year old prophecy is coming true today with all the hatred being spewed.

    18For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, 19because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. 20For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. 21For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. 22Professing to be wise, they became fools, 23and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures.

    24Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, so that their bodies would be dishonored among them. 25For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.

    January 18, 2012 at 2:25 pm |
    • snowyowl

      "Professing to be wise, they became fools"

      What a ringing endorsement of the Tea Party!

      January 18, 2012 at 2:27 pm |
    • Dr.Fritz

      Thanks for reminding me that yet another reason for not having Mitt Romney become the nominee is to avoid all those months and months of Mormon PRs PLAYING the religious BIGOT CARD.

      January 18, 2012 at 2:31 pm |
    • tony

      We need to know more about the "Super-God", who gave the Biblical "God" such limited powers over this universe. Real gods don't need collection plates or "powerful" human allies.

      January 18, 2012 at 2:31 pm |
  11. tony

    Sounds like someone who should ascend to to the Heaven she loves ASAP.

    January 18, 2012 at 2:25 pm |
    • Hikerstud

      Don't worry persecution is coming and if the muslims don't send you to heaven by taking off your head I think we are seeing many of our fellow americans are beginning to get a taste for blood. Throw them to the lions eh? Crucify him crucify him!!

      January 18, 2012 at 2:30 pm |
  12. Sidney

    Just a thought, Mormons are not Mormons. We are Christians, the name of the church which Mitt Romney represent is the Church of Jesus Christ, we believe in Christ, he his at the head of the Church. Mormon it is just a nickname given to us because of the book Mormon. We speak, and preach about Christ so our kids will know where to go for the remmision of their sins.

    January 18, 2012 at 2:25 pm |
    • Dr.Fritz

      TELL US ABOUT THE PLANET KOLOB.

      January 18, 2012 at 2:33 pm |
    • Hs

      Please correct me if I am wrong but do Mormons believe:

      1) That Jesus was the firstborn child of God and anyone after him also a child of God literally not in spirit
      2) Mormons themselves can become a God and have decedents worshiping them
      3) God is one of many in perpetuity with followers created on different planets.

      If any of this were true the Gospel and Christian God I know is very different from yours and Mormonism is the very thing Jesus and Paul warned us about in the New Testament.

      January 18, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
  13. JMysterio

    Every election you get the zealots who want to create a religious dogma. It's their way or you're going to burn in hell or worse, in Mexico...

    January 18, 2012 at 2:24 pm |
  14. Carlos

    Religion perverted as a political power tool, funneling gobs of influence and dollars to advance the social agenda of the few. Not exactly what Jesus intended, is it? I was under the impression that our country was founded on the principle of church and state separation... just sayin'.

    January 18, 2012 at 2:23 pm |
    • snowyowl

      Amen, Brother!

      January 18, 2012 at 2:30 pm |
  15. Mary

    Wow this Cindy creep is full of herself. Loves the LORD so much she married a plastic doc to keep her face young for Jesus. She is a scam artist of the first order, the only truth she uttered in this piece is that she went to church as a child for the GOODIES, guess what, NOTHING has changed.

    January 18, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
  16. THE TRUTH

    something screams "loose hypocrit" about this woman...maybe it's the photos. maybe it's that she's endorsing a NON-CHRISTIAN!!!!

    January 18, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
    • THE TRUTH

      *hypocrite

      January 18, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
  17. palintwit

    I am going to take up a collection and send her a box of assorted s*x toys.

    January 18, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
    • snowyowl

      She's probably already got a suitcase full of them. The self-described pious ones are always the kinkiest.

      January 18, 2012 at 2:31 pm |
  18. Joe

    Reaganomics turned the progress of this country back to the day of share croppers only we conquored Mexico by allowing them the drug trade as a payoff to sell us their poor working class as slaves.

    January 18, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
  19. J.C.

    Couldn't fix the red eye on the lead picture? They look like they're possessed. Which come to think about it would explain some things about Romney, evangelicals, and Republicans in general.

    January 18, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
    • snowyowl

      Bingo!

      January 18, 2012 at 2:32 pm |
  20. duh

    Reagan wonderful was the starting era of the middle class dying out. Thanks a lot.

    January 18, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
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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.