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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. ProperVillain

    I'm going to start a new reality show called "Crazy People In Power". Costa will be my first subject...

    January 18, 2012 at 2:46 pm |
    • black

      for a nice hefty fee she will will be at your show.

      January 18, 2012 at 2:49 pm |
  2. black

    THE BEST POST

    nick2
    Driven by emotion and claiming the holy spirit I have no doubt that her personality radiates the sort of purity that evangelicals are addicted to. But beneath this benign and loving persona is a calculating and very judgmental streak that simply belies what she calls her faith. Perhaps they are one and the same, but for my money it is not compassion that marks her presence – but the same goal as all the others- to win – even at the risk of compromising everything she thinks she believes in.

    January 18, 2012 at 2:46 pm |
    • Stinky McCracken

      OBAMA OUT 2012!!!! Yeah Nig ga!!

      January 18, 2012 at 2:47 pm |
  3. GonzoG

    I don't mind Christians who live the life and use their Faith to make themselves better people.

    I REALLY take umbrage to those who insist on forcing their Religion upon my day to day life–and I get completely incensed when they try to make their Beliefs into law that affects ME.

    January 18, 2012 at 2:45 pm |
  4. Simple Math

    Mormons believe that you can earn your way into a better life in the future. That would be a belief in reincarnation. Romney believes that he will be reincarnated on another Earth somewhere in the Universe and be Jesus to those people. The problem is that reincarnation only works in a Finite Universe like the one described by the big bang which states that one and zero are the same.

    January 18, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
    • Penis Buffet

      Obama already thinks he is Jesus or mohammed or a milkshake....

      January 18, 2012 at 2:46 pm |
  5. black

    This type of stuff is purely political collusion and nothing to do with faith. These are Jim Crow zombies resurrected to get Obama out. Tomorrow they will be at each other's throat. Look around you religion is at the centre of every politically charged situation and is in fact at the root of it all

    January 18, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
    • Yolanda Weiner

      Obama is just an uncle Tom.

      January 18, 2012 at 2:45 pm |
  6. seanwct

    I believe an example of her true faith lies in her having had cosmetic surgery. It seems to me that a person with true faith would be happy with what God gave to them; and that this person would not want to change what God has created. Is this not a sin, is this not vanity and envy. There is the truth of this person, in her actions. I think her true faith is in the faith of power and the very human weekness of wanting to weild it. Look at her holing court in the pictures.

    January 18, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
  7. mary Jane

    How does she rationalise/justify Romney's flip flopping on pro choice/ pro life issues? I mean this lady is so devout and Christian, she says Christ comes before her family according this article. I agree with her about ruling out Mormonism as a problem., but Mitt's views have often been contrary to everythign she professes to hold as sacred. Sounds like a total hypocrite to me. Politacl expediency for her own personal financial agenda is most important.

    January 18, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
  8. McShannon

    Costa looks and acts like a goupie when around Mr. Romney. Let's take her involvement as a women thing and go no further.

    January 18, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
    • BIG GUY 420

      she's a "plaster caster" !

      January 18, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
  9. Kelly Rowland

    SHe a HO!

    January 18, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
    • stob

      yea. these scams aint workin. RON PAUL 2012 RESTORE AMERICA

      January 18, 2012 at 2:45 pm |
  10. Raju Charles

    The need of the hour is a honest and caring President! I President Obama is leading the country in the right direction, he is honest and caring,he got my vote. Please verify Mitt Romney tax. His wife wants him to be the president,so that she can shine as first lady.
    God save America from the fraud Christian leaders,who can't take a stand for christian rights and lobby for Hindu's and Sikhs for fistful of Dollars!!!

    January 18, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
    • Gwyneth Paltrows Doggy Style Nippers

      Obama is just a half-breed communist idiot.

      January 18, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
  11. J.W

    I wish someone like rick santorum would come on this blog. Maybe both him and Richard Dawkins. That would be interesting.

    January 18, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
    • BIG GUY 420

      google "santorum" meaning 😉

      January 18, 2012 at 2:46 pm |
  12. LouAz

    Hey . . . there is money in Jeebus. Halejulia !

    January 18, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
  13. THE KING

    She is quite a cutie pie. Bring her by Burger King for some of the Kings Weiner.

    January 18, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
  14. FD

    Referring to gays she said, “Once you do that, you have to ordain any sinful person.” Now, don't so-called Christians believe that we are all sinners? And she went under the knife to "enhance" her physical self? And she's grateful that she didn't get a Jewish name? And she admires the 700 Club and Robertson. Face it, she's lost.

    January 18, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
    • Cindy

      Mainstream christians think of themselves as sinners and work to improve themselves. Evangelicals think that everyone else is a sinner and work to improve you.

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

      Well said, Cinty!

      January 18, 2012 at 2:47 pm |
  15. mannycl

    Never surprised at the losers and wackos' comments in this place.

    January 18, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
  16. nick2

    Driven by emotion and claiming the holy spirit I have no doubt that her personality radiates the sort of purity that evangelicals are addicted to. But beneath this benign and loving persona is a calculating and very judgmental streak that simply belies what she calls her faith. Perhaps they are one and the same, but for my money it is not compassion that marks her presence – but the same goal as all the others- to win – even at the risk of compromising everything she thinks she believes in.

    January 18, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
  17. Lucifer

    Religion = Cult PERIOD!

    January 18, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
    • BIG GUY 420

      a man of wealth and taste!

      January 18, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
  18. supernaut1988

    Evangelical Christians- the single biggest threat to America's long term prosperity and well being

    January 18, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
    • BIG GUY 420

      Could not agree more!
      They are no different than the fanatics in the Middle East.

      January 18, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
    • Mike

      So True....

      January 18, 2012 at 2:45 pm |
    • Mortalc01l

      You are absolutely correct; they are the USA'S version of the Taliban.

      January 18, 2012 at 2:58 pm |
  19. Jennifer M

    (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...)

    What an arrogant, horrible woman. And how illogical. It's amazing that she ignores other ridiculous parts of the Bible, such as those forbidding the wearing of clothing made of two different fabrics. Also, I wonder if she eats pork, or other "cloven-animal" meat? Also forbidden.

    January 18, 2012 at 2:39 pm |
    • Michael

      Actually, it was forbidden of the JEWS in the old Testament. When Jesus came he proclaimed all foods to be clean (Mark 7:14-23).

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

      We are talking about church leaders and leaders are held to a higher standard. God demands his people to be holy onto God and sets certain minimum standards. Ignore the gay part as I think that is what set you off. There is no law against being born gay but there are laws within the church regarding many things. If a leader rejects the basic law then the leader must reject the Bible because the Bible is either right or it is terribly wrong there is no middle ground. How about electing a president of the American Atheist Association that is a deist in parts of his belief.

      January 18, 2012 at 2:48 pm |
    • fred

      Michael
      Oh great that means I can now eat any and all forbiden fruit...........Think about it !

      @Jennifer M – The wearing of two different cloths was not a fashion statement. It referred to not being whole or complete in thought or belief. This includes professing one belief and acting as if you believed something else.

      January 18, 2012 at 2:54 pm |
    • ProperVillain

      fred- once again the evangelical mental gymnastics come out looking for the gold! The Levitical laws were not metaphors and to try and cast them as such to justify the double mindedness of some church congregates is intellectually dishonest. Can't you just admit that they were ridiculous and move on? Or are you a biblical literalist that must reconcile all the contradictions in order to hold up your fragile view of god and reality?

      January 18, 2012 at 2:57 pm |
    • fred

      ProperVillain
      I am not aware of any contradictions in the Bible. There is your standard list of contradictions that non believers like to kick around yet; every one of them has been refuted. Typical confusion centers around something being taken out of context, mixing translations, taking a historic account for more than just a piece of history or as you said assuming all Leviticus laws apply to even non Levites today.
      Gods view is not fragile and if my faith is fragile I better get off this site quick.

      January 18, 2012 at 3:12 pm |
    • fred

      ProperVillain
      BTW the comment as to clean and eathing all foods was from Jesus and He was making a statment that it was not unclean food but an unclean heart that we need to be concerned about.

      January 18, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
  20. Dan

    http://www.planetdan.net/pics/misc/romney.htm

    January 18, 2012 at 2:38 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.