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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. black

    these people are so blinded it makes me shake my head. moral decline in the souther states started from the time these states were established on the back of African slaves. And the moral decline has continued ever since. Did you the reaction of these people when Newt use the racial innuendos of welfare? The crowd went wild. Not only morally declining but totally morally bankrupt.

    January 18, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
    • Oy

      Yep. Same people who claim to be "pro life" yet they cheer the fact that Rick Perry's Texas executed more inmates than another other state. Sickening.

      January 18, 2012 at 2:01 pm |
  2. ObamaJoe

    hey Bob,,,,,,,,,,,how to post youtube at CNN?

    January 18, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
  3. promixcuous

    These are not people with a sense of reality.

    January 18, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
  4. matthouse

    damn, not voting for this guy

    January 18, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
  5. Brandon

    Does it bother anyone else that people like this hold so much power over who gets elected. Time to wake up....

    January 18, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
    • Isaac

      You got that right

      January 18, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
    • DoNotWorry

      Bothers me that someone can profess faith in Jesus Christ and Mitt the Ripper World in the same breath.

      January 18, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
    • Leaf on the Wind

      Yes, it bothers me, too. And the scariest thing about Costa, to me, is her utter certainty and sincerity. She isn't a bad person, just an ignorant one in some ways, but ignorance with power is scary.

      January 18, 2012 at 1:09 pm |
  6. ProperVillain

    To all far right religious nut jobs: Jesus was not an American. God doesn't care which party wins. There is no favorite candidate. Moreover, most of these candidates will pander to anyone for a vote. If they need to go to church a few times to get some votes, they will. It sickens me to see religion, any religion, used and abused this way. Jesus never said that he came to make sure the "right" people or party were in the seat of political power. If this were his goal he would have started a rebellion like others before him. Instead he preached a message of love and helping the less fortunate. Not a message of overthrowing the "corrupt" Roman government and putting "righteous" people in the Senate. If you believe Jesus came to support your party and make a case for your political causes then you are blinder than the Pharisees that he so loathed...

    January 18, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
    • DoNotWorry

      Jesus did not come to bring worldly wealth, but to bring love to the world. Can't see how he would support Mitt the Ripper World.

      January 18, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
    • Hikerstud

      Good commnets but I bet Jesus would have voted. And I bet not for Barney the Fugepacker Frank or Godless murderous types like Stalin. Rather for John Kennedy or MLK right? And he did not advocate treating rich people unjustly or better than poor people nor forcing to take their money and give it to others like our government does. He wants peoples hearts to do what is right not by force. And that is what separation of church and state is about. It is self evident God gave us choice not force. But he never intended for people of faith to stay out of decionmaking and leadership. Just not force laws on people like the libs for LGBT on us.

      January 18, 2012 at 2:05 pm |
    • Jarod

      @Hikerstud, I get where youre going with this ....buuuuuut. You might want to check your biblical stories, especially the part where you stated, "nor forcing to take their money and give it to others like our government does." as a matter of fact he did.... ..priceless huh?

      January 18, 2012 at 3:06 pm |
  7. alex chapman

    Jesus ate w/the tax collectors , mingled w/lepers & preached his Sermon on the Mount to the Downtrodden. Miss Costa seems to have missed that part of the "Christian" message.

    January 18, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
    • DoNotWorry

      Well, she is endorsing Mitt the Ripper. Do you think she told him to go and sin no more?

      January 18, 2012 at 12:54 pm |
  8. Ted

    “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.”

    I could list scripture after scripture the Christians don't follow anyway! What kind of nut does she take us for? Oh Well maybe she is nuts to say something so stupid!

    January 18, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
    • Zenichi-Maro

      Exactly. Ms. Costa CLEARLY hasn't read her New Testament, particularly 1 Timothy 11-12, where Paul writes: "11 A womanshould learn in quietness and full submission. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.

      January 18, 2012 at 1:56 pm |
  9. Henry

    Kinda of funny that this born again evangelical has demon-like red eyes in the pic.

    January 18, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
    • WASP

      LMAO

      January 18, 2012 at 1:05 pm |
  10. 4sense

    Excuse me CNN, but ... Costa, who "embodies the mix of establishment party power and evangelical fervor that will determine the outcome" of the SC primary is not a more important story than what the current Idiot Congress, with its Republican majority, is about to do regarding their copyright law and Internet censorship.

    January 18, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
    • Ted

      Agreed! OBAMA 2012!

      January 18, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
    • John

      Really? idiot Congress with a republican majority? You are a fool, DEMOCRAT MAJORITY, and Republicans are voting no: See, Scott Brown, many others. Sad people agreed with this... OBAMA 2012! BAAAAA! Goverment should be small, to get away from idiot politicians.

      January 18, 2012 at 2:57 pm |
  11. TWH

    I find it very disturbing that the only candidate that follows Christ's teachings the most in his political beliefs/practices is labeled a whacko and is not supported by these evangelicals. I'm referring to the only candidate that is promoting peace and diplomacy – Ron Paul.

    I saw a picture on facebook. in one column "I like Ron Paul, except on foreign policy." In the other column next to it was a picture of Jesus: "I like Jesus, except on loving my neighbors"

    January 18, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
    • Ted

      LOL!

      January 18, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
    • Oy

      ?????????
      He does?!
      Could have fooled me! Didn't realize that Jesus would be against the Civil Rights Act. Interesting...
      Also didn't realize that He would be cool with companies polluting HIS earth.

      January 18, 2012 at 2:03 pm |
    • Tex71

      I find it very disturbing that you would link Libertarian philosophy to the teachings of Jesus Christ, when they are diametric opposites. Jesus: "Love your neighbor as yourself." Rand: “I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man." Jesus: "Love your neighbor as yourself." Rand: "All you have to do is please yourself.” Jesus: "The love of money is the root of all evil." Rand: "Run for your life from any man who tells you that money is evil." Jesus: "Love the Lord your God." Rand: "And now I see the face of god, and I raise this god over the earth...This god, this one word: "I.” One could continue forever. The only way you can be a Christian and a Libertarian is if you fail to understand at least one of the two ideas.

      January 18, 2012 at 2:33 pm |
  12. SciGuy

    She says, "I felt like they were no different than me.". And undoubtedly she is as lost as Mormons are when it comes to the Gospel. Anyone who would support warmonger Romney over peacemaker Paul is hardly a Biblical Christian.

    January 18, 2012 at 12:48 pm |
    • Oy

      lol
      Peacemaker Paul. Ok...
      It's called being an Isolationist, not a peacemaker.
      I have NO idea why people put this man on a pedestal. He's certifiable and wants to take us back to 1850.

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

      Oy, nonintervention does NOT equal isolation. Strawman arguments seem to be all that you anti-Paulites know.

      January 18, 2012 at 4:13 pm |
  13. Matthew

    ha! SHE EVEN LOOKS CRAZY! So she's a Rapture Girl eh? About ready to get plucked away to the pearly gates!!!!??!?!
    Hope she dyes her hair back to brown! I heard Hey-Zeus doesn't like FAKE blondes!

    ha ha ha!

    January 18, 2012 at 12:48 pm |
    • ProperVillain

      Oh great, and she's and "end timer" as well. Fantastic. Looks like she would then do anything and everything in her power to start a war in the middle east to usher in the "new kingdom". Why anyone with an ounce of rational thought takes anyone like her even remotely seriously vexes and terrifies me...

      January 18, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
  14. Jt_flyer

    When we feel we know better than our founding fathers lets take a moment and find guidance in their words  Here are a few Thomas Jefferson quotes:

    1.  History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government.  This marks the lowest grade of ignorance, of which their political as well as religious leaders will always avail themselves for their own purpose.  Thomas Jefferson

    2. "Christianity is the most perverted system that ever shone on man"- Thomas
    Jefferson

    3. "The hocus-pocus phantasm of a God like another Cerberus, with one body and three heads, had its birth and growth in the blood of thousands and thousands of martyrs." -Thomas Jefferson

    4. "It is too late in the day for men of sincerity to pretend they believe in the Platonic mysticisms that three are one, and one is three; and yet the one is not three, and the three are not one- Thomas Jefferson

    5. "And the day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin will be clas.sed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter. But we may hope that the dawn of reason and freedom of thought in these United States will do away with all this artificial scaffolding, and restore to us the primitive and genuine doctrines of this the most venerated reformer of human errors."- Thomas Jefferson

    6. "There is not one redeeming feature in our supersti.tion of Christianity. It has made one half the world fools, and the other half hypocrites."- Thomas Jefferson

    January 18, 2012 at 12:48 pm |
    • Matthew

      And he seduced his Child-Slave Sally Jennings (Hemmings). Where does that fit in your little diddy there Mr. JT?

      January 18, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
    • Ted

      Thank You! An excellent post with backup!

      January 18, 2012 at 12:54 pm |
    • saf65

      Excellent–Thank you. So many conservatives out there talking about our "founding fathers" and Christianity who apparently don't know their history at all.

      January 18, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
    • SciGuy

      Jefferson is a good guide on liberty and consti.tutional republics, but a typical pagan on theology. See John Gill for the latter, or even Charles Spurgeon, or Calvin.

      January 18, 2012 at 1:08 pm |
    • Tex71

      SciGuy: Jefferson – a Pagan? I guess in your book, not being a flat-earth fundamentalist automatically qualifies you as a pagan! Jefferson was a Deist, like a lot of free-thinking Christians then and now. And calling yourself "SciGuy" will fool no one if your idea of science is a literal reading of Genesis.

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

      One who leaps to unsubstantiated conclusions as quickly as tex71 should probably avoid comments on science as a rule.

      January 18, 2012 at 4:11 pm |
  15. Reggie from LA

    I guess mama was wrong, talking about a lowly Jesus and getting down on our knees to pray. You know, love and humility and such. These folks get up on their hind legs to kick everybody's a$$ that doesn't agree with them and when that fails, they get behind some gunslinger like this vulture, to set things right. You know, Dominionism. If you're not familiar. Look it up. I think that Jesus is not in the equation if he doesn't have a PAC. You sure as he11 should know where that leaves the poor and poor-to be.

    January 18, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
    • Baker, Ca

      Check out this part of her resume, glad she is not superficial but spiritual in nature...

      Cindy Costa is the Business Manager for Southeastern Facial Plastic/Cosmetic Surgery Center in Charleston, South Carolina. In addition to being a licensed real estate agent and a former Mrs. South Carolina, USA,

      January 18, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
  16. DavidE7

    The wife of a plastic surgeon. Could her values be skin deep? Who's her second choice? Brad Pitt?

    January 18, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
  17. and...

    It is very telling that this so-called "Christian", Costa would hang out with such a lying, deceitful worm as Ralph Reed. She's about as Christian as the Dali Lama.

    January 18, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
    • Zenichi-Maro

      I don't know, friend. I think the Dalai Lama is way more Christian than she'll ever be. And by that, I mean to say that at least His Holiness is living a life of compassion, lovingkindness, and care for others. This chick's just jumping up to kiss powerful a&& and getting off on the power she cozies up to.

      January 18, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
  18. Mark C

    Rick Perry is a presidential "hopeful?" More like delusional at this point.

    January 18, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
  19. WTH

    She looks younger now than she did in 1992. Is she human?

    January 18, 2012 at 12:46 pm |
    • Matthew

      No, not human, a plastic surgeons WIFE!!!! AND a RERUBLICAN!! GO figure!!

      January 18, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
    • rick

      It puts the lotion on its skin.

      January 18, 2012 at 5:01 pm |
  20. ARALE NORIMAKI

    I don’t know how you feel, but I’m pretty sick of church people. You know what they ought to do with churches? Tax them! If holy people are so concerned with politics, government and public policy, let them pay the price of admission like everyone else.

    January 18, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
    • DoNotWorry

      No more tax exempt status for churches. It isn't like they are helping all the unemployed people in their areas. Oh yeah, $400 for charity and $40,000 for political candidates.

      January 18, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
    • TomGI

      Agree 100%

      January 18, 2012 at 1:17 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.