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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. Reality

    Dear Cindy C,

    (still waiting for your response)

    JC's family and friends had it right 2000 years ago ( Mark 3: 21 "And when his friends heard of it, they went out to lay hold on him: for they said, He is beside himself.")

    Said passage is one of the few judged to be authentic by most contemporary NT scholars. e.g. See Professor Ludemann's conclusion in his book, Jesus After 2000 Years, p. 24 and p. 694.

    Actually, Jesus was a bit "touched". After all he thought he spoke to Satan, thought he changed water into wine, thought he raised Lazarus from the dead etc. In today's world, said Jesus would be declared legally insane.

    Or did P, M, M, L and J simply make him into a first century magic-man via their epistles and gospels of semi-fiction? Most contemporary NT experts after thorough analyses of all the scriptures go with the latter magic-man conclusion with J's gospel being mostly fiction.

    Obviously, today's followers of Paul et al's "magic-man" are also a bit on the odd side believing in all the Christian mumbo jumbo about bodies resurrecting, and exorcisms, and miracles, and "magic-man atonement, and infallible, old, European/Utah white men, and 24/7 body/blood sacrifices followed by consumption of said sacrifices. Yummy!!!!

    So why do we really care what a first century CE, illiterate, long-dead, preacher man would do or say?

    January 18, 2012 at 3:01 pm |
  2. Drew

    Romney's are great people. I've met them a time or two and Mitt would make a great president. Let's hope the party can unite and all get behind him. ROMNEY 2012!

    January 18, 2012 at 3:01 pm |
  3. You KNOW she gets undressed, on her knees, opens her mouth

    so Mitt can take a pee in it.

    January 18, 2012 at 3:01 pm |
    • Curious

      You should be ashamed.

      January 18, 2012 at 3:05 pm |
    • Hello, its me

      I would like for her to take a pee in my mouth.

      January 18, 2012 at 3:13 pm |
  4. peakarach

    Her faith in an imaginging god came first above all else?

    January 18, 2012 at 3:01 pm |
  5. Charlou

    I don't understand these people who come out that they are so righteous and such divine beings and yet they hate anyone that is not like them whether it be race,life style,neighborhood or financial level they all want to portray that they are so righteous to get where they want to and after that they turn their backs and look out for all that is in their class of people how can they claim to be so religious and yet discriminat against all people living a good life no matter where they live,work worship and yes the color of their skin if they are so holy and righteous then God loved everyone and wanted all to have a wonderful life so if they truly beleive they need to live the word not just using it.

    January 18, 2012 at 3:00 pm |
  6. Simple Math

    The Mormon Jesus is the brother of Lucifer, and according to LDS teaching, he married several of the Marys of the New Testament. He is not, to the LDS church, "God incarnate" as the Bible plainly states. Clearly, the Mormon god and Jesus are not the true.

    January 18, 2012 at 3:00 pm |
    • Wake up for Jeebus Sake

      Got news for ya...believe or not, the bible was written my men.. some of those guys had issues..controlling issues to name but a few. There are many good stories in the bible and that is not to say it is not a good guide to live by, but in our current day and age I feel sorry for people that cling so blindly to it, not daring to wonder or question for fear of the boogey man and his eternal flames..so silly. Who truly believes Jonah was swallowed by a whale, that Lot ?? was that the guy? lived to be 700 yrs old...really? That some tricky devil planted all the dinosaur bones and tricked our scientist to proclaim evalution got us where we are today..
      Folks I myself am but a humble bumkin, but I truly believe, with all my heart that when we die and we meet on the other side we are going to laugh so hard at what we believed while we were here. It is the great unknown, and our greatest adventure.

      January 18, 2012 at 3:09 pm |
    • Willie12345

      Aren't we all brothers and sisters ?

      January 18, 2012 at 4:50 pm |
  7. Connie Snyder

    Be kind and loving? Is that what she calls the shameful treatment the right wing has heaped out at the President of the United States these past three years? And although Romney's religion is not an issue as to his right to run for office in this country, it IS an issue for those Evangelicals who claim that "My faith is the most important thing," as Costa claims. If so, and if Evangelicals want one of their own as nominee, then what is she doing backing a Mormon whose health care plan as Governor of MA became the blueprint for the Health Care Act? Who defended the right to choose? Who believes in a distinct and drastic departure of the Christian faith? This is where we find out if Evangelicals mean what they profess to believe and whether or not their faith, and not politics, is "the most important thing" to them.

    January 18, 2012 at 3:00 pm |
  8. MassiveSounds

    have you ever noticed self-anointed religious people, the majority are racist and have no problems starting wars?

    January 18, 2012 at 3:00 pm |
  9. Your husbands big weiner is tastyLicious

    Obama Nig ger.

    January 18, 2012 at 2:59 pm |
    • rm

      Bush

      Stu-pid

      January 18, 2012 at 3:00 pm |
  10. I wanna see her and Mitt with no clothes, facing one another, sitting

    on the toilet both taking a shyt and kissing...the hot stanky steam rising and stinking up the place.

    January 18, 2012 at 2:58 pm |
    • Curious

      You are a tool... Really?

      January 18, 2012 at 3:14 pm |
  11. Simple Math

    One question that I would ask all Mormons is this: "If I accept you as a Christian, will you accept me as a Mormon?" Would you accept me as a Mormon if I reject Joseph Smith and all the LDS prophets as being prophets of God. If I do not believe in the Book of Mormon or the LDS Scriptures, baptisms for the dead, the temple endowments, the LDS gospel, would you accept me as a Mormon? The answer is obviously, you would not. In like manner, when Mormonism denies the Bible and every Christian doctrine do you think that Biblical Christians should accept Mormons as Christians? Again the answer is very obvious, no we will not. You cannot legitimately claim to be Christians when you refuse to accept what the Bible teaches and what a true Christian believes.

    January 18, 2012 at 2:58 pm |
    • Connie Snyder

      Point well made!

      January 18, 2012 at 3:02 pm |
    • Drew

      Mormon's accept the Bible as the Word of God. They also have another book of scripture called "The Book of Mormon" Another Testiment of Jesus Christ.

      January 18, 2012 at 3:04 pm |
  12. rm

    Dear Mitt,

    Here's how to totally marginalize yourself in the post primary world of the general election:

    1. Hang out with Christian fundamentalists.
    2. Repeat the phrase, "Class warfare"
    3. Accuse Obama of being socialist.

    Continue with this approach and the republican 'base' you seem to be serving at the moment will reveal itself as a shrinking minority voting block it truly is...albeit a loud one. And the center you so desperately need to win in November will be following their Massachusetts brethren you used to appeal to out the door.

    Nothing like watching a very slow death.

    rm

    January 18, 2012 at 2:57 pm |
  13. NorthVanCan

    What can i say.I am so sick of religious people being in power. Why do people elect some one that believes the same thing as Osama Bin laden? Its just a different book but the same cause.

    January 18, 2012 at 2:57 pm |
  14. Moses

    It's people like these that I regret that they stopped throwing Christians to the lions!

    January 18, 2012 at 2:56 pm |
  15. redneckjunior

    BIGOTRY pure unadulterated BIGOTRY. She is a racist, and a bigot. The bible talkes about vanity and judging from the amount of plastic surgery she has been given she sure is vain. She can talk about pickin an choosing parts of the bible but when it comes down to it thats what these so called christians do.. I agree with CALVIN we need to remove Religion from Politics completely so that our country can make laws for the people not just one sect of people. Its getting to the point now that we as a country are going to lose our freedom completely if these people dont stand up for Justus and Freedom and the right to believe and choose as individuals. At this time we are now facing a law that will take away the freedom of speech from the internet as well in this country. People need to stand up and stand tall and fight for our rights. I am all for religion as long as it does not tread on my freedom to live as I choose in this country.

    January 18, 2012 at 2:56 pm |
  16. Wake up for Jeebus Sake

    When did religion mixed with politics all become OK? There is a reason the forefathers said not to mix church and state ! We have crazy tea baggers in office that have no real clue as to how the government actually runs, elected because they spouted a bunch of none sense that some people believed. This woman, at least from what I am reading is a very thinly disguised racist..Looking down her nose at gays and no doubt people of color not far behind. I am neither gay nor 'of color' but I am so tired of us all fighting the tired issue of gay rights, it reminds me of the 60's when blacks fought for equal treatment, or at least an attempt to acheive it. Wake up People, embrace this new century and lets make it memorable, not laughable and tragic. Everyone should be equal and have the same rights if they are law abiding, tax paying citizens.

    January 18, 2012 at 2:56 pm |
    • DamianKnight

      It comes from, everybody has the right to their opinion, regardless of who agrees with them or not.

      The church base has an opinion, and its adherents more than likely share that opinion, so they throw in their lot with the candidate they think best represents those opinions.

      Lots of groups do this, including charities, corporations, social groups and individuals.

      January 18, 2012 at 3:01 pm |
  17. jim

    I had hoped that I could vote for Romney (to get rid of Obummer), but this alliance with the Christian Media Wh0res makes that impossible. Obama – 4 more years.

    January 18, 2012 at 2:56 pm |
  18. jake

    what romney is a brother in Christ. Romney thinks that the devil and Christian are brother. So what does that make you,

    January 18, 2012 at 2:55 pm |
    • Wake up for Jeebus Sake

      Are you so sure about that Jake? Because one postures and assures you of their holiness that makes it so? Is it not in the acts, the UNSELFISH acts, that determine a persons worth or goodness?

      January 18, 2012 at 3:00 pm |
  19. Barry G.

    Wm D.,

    I thought the fall of the Roman Empire ushered in the Dark Ages, and that the fall was brought about by numerous invading groups–Goths, Visogoths, Vandals, Barbarians, etc..

    What history books are you reading?

    And I thought that warfare and its intrigues were a daily fact of life, since the Ancient Egyptians–if not the Ancient Mesopotamians.

    When you produce (re-write) your world history, please notify me. I must get a copy.

    January 18, 2012 at 2:55 pm |
  20. I got the crabs

    and that blonde bytch gave em to me.

    January 18, 2012 at 2:55 pm |
    • Wake up for Jeebus Sake

      hahahaha ok that was funny and I was just needing a laugh, thanks

      January 18, 2012 at 3:00 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.