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. KTinCA

    Doesn't anyone monitor these forums? Some of this absolutely vulgar content demonstrates its relevancy and it should be eliminated. I believe in free speech – but this stuff is stomach turning. CNN – role model normal decency and common sense and delete those responses that so obviously cross the line.

    January 18, 2012 at 3:32 pm |
    • trigtwit palin... America's favorite tard baby


      January 18, 2012 at 3:34 pm |
    • Curious

      Agreed... Over the top. No wonder we have O. Ha

      January 18, 2012 at 3:39 pm |
    • MartinT

      I guess it's called Freedom of Ignorance and everyone should hit the report abuse button so CNN will remove the offensive posts.

      January 18, 2012 at 3:43 pm |
    • Chuckles

      Honestly..... I think that's what makes the internet so great. I mean, don't get me wrong, I know the posts you are referencing annoy the hel.l out of me and is just a troll or two looking to poke the beehive with a stick, but it's their right to do so, just as it's my right to trash christianity, islam, judaism, religion in general, etc... as much as I want without fear of being censored because a majority of the people dislike what i have to say.

      As great as it would be just block the child who keeps using the different handles to say some pretty vulgar and disgusting things, the next best thing to do is just ignore it.

      January 18, 2012 at 3:48 pm |
    • Lucifer's Evil Twin

      Gingers should stay out of the sun.

      January 18, 2012 at 3:50 pm |
    • El Kababa

      No one at CNN gets paid to read this stuff.

      January 18, 2012 at 3:55 pm |
  2. gil

    Who knows what a religion is?
    Its a cult thats succeeded....

    January 18, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
    • atheist

      Highly educated response, that.

      January 18, 2012 at 3:33 pm |
  3. Keb Keb

    “If he says Jesus Christ is his Lord and savior, who am I to say ‘No, he’s not?’” I wonder if she gives the same consideration to Obama? And, just to clarify, she may go to a Southern Baptist Churbs but she's NOT an Evangelical. An Evangelical would know who Christ claims to be and know that Mormonism is anathema to those claims.

    January 18, 2012 at 3:27 pm |
    • Andrew N

      To say that you or your church have a corner on Jesus Christ is ridiculous. It is totally and all encompassingly embarrassing for someone to truly think that mormons don't worship Jesus Christ as their savior. Its ignorant. Its un-american. And frankly, i believe its un-christian. Mitt Romney is just as much a religious man as any one else who is running. Does he have faults? Yes. Is he a man? Yes. Do all men have faults? Yes. Give it a rest with your anti mormon efforts. Mormons have a controversial history. So does America. Doesn't mean America isn't right.

      January 18, 2012 at 3:39 pm |
  4. RicciSmiles

    Help me here. Why is it this woman can say "“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.”" and not realize that (maybe you dont realize this either Mr.Miss Reader) its use is for children and the stupid. "Different than me" is the stop sign of the ignorant and the fearful who have some inner problem with the general IDEA that learning about the "differences" is what pulls people, ALL people, together. SURE sometimes the differences are to vast: Any consenting adult should be allowed to get married to any consenting adult".. This "difference" might be too vast, but we all know Ms. Costa doesnt have such an issue. GO NEW GOP (sarcasm added).

    January 18, 2012 at 3:21 pm |
  5. Holy ShytBalls. I wonder how many Presidential D!CKS she has had in

    her mouth and up her doodee fill rumpHole.

    January 18, 2012 at 3:20 pm |
  6. Holy ShytBalls. I bet that lady gives good head.

    SUCK IT!!!

    January 18, 2012 at 3:18 pm |
  7. Mitt looks as though he smells something really stinky that is

    coming from between this ladies legs. I think she laid out a really big stinker.

    January 18, 2012 at 3:17 pm |
    • palintwit

      You could be right...

      January 18, 2012 at 3:21 pm |
  8. packerfans

    Book of Mormon is Second Holy Bible who was tribles of Jospeh went to Egpty become Goverment and his descent children went to America around 600 BC. Also His Brother Judah at Isareal in first Holy Bible also. i said Book of Mormon and Holy Bible are word of God. Christian you need read history about America 600 Bc who they people are?? Where they are come from?? Who was found America lately, they are not first late around 1492 AD by Christpher Columbus!!!

    January 18, 2012 at 3:14 pm |
    • MartinT

      I have ONE bit of advice for you, my friend – English as a second Language... you should try the course.

      January 18, 2012 at 3:19 pm |
    • Rigel54

      The first (human) Americans came to this continent from central and northern Asia between 15,000 and 11,000 years ago, across the Bering land bridge. There is no trace of Semitic DNA in native American peoples. These ideas are absurd.

      January 18, 2012 at 4:19 pm |
  9. Drew

    ROMNEY 2012!

    January 18, 2012 at 3:08 pm |
    • El Kababa

      Gingrich 2012. He's less morally inferior than his opponents.

      January 18, 2012 at 3:27 pm |
    • Right but left

      Can never see my self voting for someone who thinks blessed underwear is a good idea.

      January 18, 2012 at 3:36 pm |
  10. Louis

    Finally, a Southern Baptist who doesn't just blindly accept the lies that SOME Baptist Ministers spread about Mormons. The same Jesus Christ that they preach IS our Lord and Savior, regardless of their opinion or arrogant "definition" of what makes a Christian. Sounds like Cindy Costa has a good head on her shoulders!

    January 18, 2012 at 3:07 pm |
    • MartinT

      Yeah, Louis, you tell em, it's the same nonsense, just without the golden plates, Smith, and multiple wives.

      January 18, 2012 at 3:15 pm |
    • MartinT

      Oh, and I forgot, the magical underwear!

      January 18, 2012 at 3:16 pm |
  11. JOE B

    Cindy Costa has no credibility whatsoever and doesn't represent anyone but herself. If she did any research on the Mormon religion , she would realize the teaching embraces the concept that man can become a god by being a mormon. Obviously she doesn't realize how deplorable such an idea is to our Lord. This is what Eve thought she would become. It iswhat drives Satan and here is a person that CNN embraces as some sort of leader, this Cindy Costa, is no representative of the Christian Community.

    January 18, 2012 at 3:06 pm |
    • MartinT

      I don't find the concepts in Mormonism much more unbelievable than those of Christianity, to be honest. It's all a bunch of hocus pocus anyway, as is all religion.

      January 18, 2012 at 3:08 pm |
    • cecilia

      she does have credibility – first she is pretty, she is outspoken, she is Christian and she believe she can lead the Tea Party Republicans through the desert –

      January 18, 2012 at 3:15 pm |
    • MartinT

      Let's see, Pretty, Outspoken, and Christian – Hmmmm, YEP, she's a keeper, just like that Sarah Palin woman.... she turned out so well, didn't she?

      January 18, 2012 at 3:17 pm |
    • Louis

      Becoming a god is based on the Biblical teaching that the faithful will be "JOINT HEIRS" with Christ, who inherited ALL that the Father has – "worlds without end". What is so offensive for God our loving Heavenly FATHER wanting what's best for HIS CHILDREN? Don't you want the best for your children? Would you be offended if they got to your stature, eventually? Becoming a god will take eons of time, but it is a POSSIBILITY because eternity is a very very long time and repentance and the Atonement and sacrifice of our Savior makes that possible.

      January 18, 2012 at 3:20 pm |
    • MartinT

      Louis, My Man, whatever you are smoking, I wish you could share, dude! I don't know about you, but I plan to spend my eternity DEAD, like all the others before and after me. Why can't we just live for the day, and take care of the one life we KNOW we have. God has done such a Bang up job (sarcasm) I'll leave it to him to take care of things in the future.

      January 18, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
    • Louis

      To Martin T – The golden plates of Joseph Smith are where the Ten Commandments tablets are, back with God, where they won't be desecrated by people like you. As for the magical underwear, they are not magical and only low lives call it that.

      January 18, 2012 at 3:26 pm |
    • MartinT

      Yeah, Louis, "back with "god" I get it. wink wink.... calling me a lowlife, wonder if Jesus would have approved? Ad Hom attacks just serve to make me Right and you Wrong... sorry.

      January 18, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
    • MartinT

      OK, so they aren't "magical" they are sacred... wow, was I way off base or what.. NOT! I'm sorry but magical or sacred underwear is just silly.... My underwear aren't too sacred, I can promise you that...

      January 18, 2012 at 3:35 pm |
    • MartinT

      And Mormon women are made to wear their bras on top of their "Sacred" underwear.. wow,...

      January 18, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
    • MartinT

      In defense though, the Catholic Pope does wear a Dress, so I guess they are both about wack a doodle.

      January 18, 2012 at 3:39 pm |
    • Snow

      Kinda begins to dawn that your religious leaders and pious masters are nothing but political scu.mbags who would sell your hide to buy themselves a new crown.. doesn't it.. and yet, people remain good little sheep and follow them right to the slaughterhouse.. never questioning why or what.. sad bunch, y'all..

      January 18, 2012 at 3:43 pm |
  12. Mark

    Gee whiz! She knows everything! Maybe she can pay my bills and feed my family when Mitt Boy closes down my plant or moves my job out of the country so he and his pirate cronies can make a fortune from it!

    January 18, 2012 at 3:06 pm |
  13. JamesGray

    Adults with imaginary friends are either very stupid or just insane and should have no place in politics.

    January 18, 2012 at 3:05 pm |
    • MartinT

      You know you just named EVERY Christian and Muslim in the world, right?

      January 18, 2012 at 3:09 pm |
  14. Joe

    Romney's Chief Hater

    January 18, 2012 at 3:05 pm |
  15. JOE B

    Cindy Costa has no credibility whatsoever and doesn't represent anyone but herself. If she did any research on the Mormon , she would realize the teaching embraces the concept that man can become a god by being a mormon. Obviously she doesn't realize how deplorable such an idea is to our Lord. This is what Eve thought she would become. It iswhat drives Satan and here is some person that CNN embraces as some sort of leader, this Cindy Costa

    January 18, 2012 at 3:05 pm |
    • SeanNJ

      It's good to have ambition.

      January 18, 2012 at 3:06 pm |
  16. El Kababa

    When CEO of Bain Capital, Romney found companies who had a pension fund, bought them, took the company into bankruptcy, wrote off the pension obligation, brought the company out of bankruptcy, and paid the pension money to himself and other Bain investors in the form of dividends, bonuses, and consulting fees.

    Because the pension funds are federally insured, then the federal taxpayer assumed the obligation of paying those retirees their pension checks.

    What kind of man does that? What kind of morality allows a man to confiscate the retirement savings of old people and pocket them?

    Vote for Newt Gingrich. He is less morally inferior than Romney, Perry, Paul, and Santorum.

    January 18, 2012 at 3:03 pm |
    • MartinT

      Well, since you put it that way, I guess we just overloook Newt's famous time in office when the ethics committee fined him nearly half a million dollars for ETHICS violations. Maybe we can overlook all of his other flaws as well. The whole lot of em need to rounded up and driven out of town on a rail car.

      January 18, 2012 at 3:27 pm |
    • Leo

      And you know this how?

      January 18, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
  17. JamesGray

    This is the 'fundamental' reason republicans are getting dragged down into irrelevancy.

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

      Work at ACORN.... Been sittig around laughing for 3 years.

      What a country...

      January 18, 2012 at 3:59 pm |
  18. Curious

    Just curious, does Obamajoe have a job?

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

      Do you have any intellect at all? Same kind of question.

      January 18, 2012 at 3:10 pm |
    • Curious

      Seriously, does martinT or Obamajoe have a job?

      January 18, 2012 at 3:45 pm |
    • MartinT

      Nope, I don't have a JOB, I have a CAREER.. kind of the same but better than a job. How about you, do you have a career?

      January 18, 2012 at 3:51 pm |
    • Curious

      Work at ACORN.... Been sittig around laughing for 3 years.

      What a country...

      January 18, 2012 at 4:01 pm |
  19. Les Paul

    Key sentence. For 15 years, Costa has served on the 150-member Republican National Committee. The RNC is leaning on her, end of story. Otherwise her faith would lead her to support Santorum or Perry.

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

      And you know this or are you guessing?

      January 18, 2012 at 3:31 pm |
  20. Anomic Office Drone

    I'll never understand how religious people, evangelical Christians in particular, let themselves be manipulated so easily.

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

      It's really not that surprising, because an easily manipulated group has already been selected for.

      Essentially, if you are gullible enough to fall for the wild claims of Christianity when all available evidence and reason shows them to be complete hogwash, then you are prime fodder for the manipulation cannons.

      January 18, 2012 at 3:11 pm |
    • MartinT

      It is historical in nature, it goes back to the whole "original sin" idea cooked up by Sultans and Kings to control the masses. "You are unworthy, therefore, you must be LED by someone greater than you." No Pagan Group from the European area would EVER have fallen for that nonsense. Look at ancient Rome and Greece, they valued MAN, not gods, which is why they gave their gods so many human qualities and allowed them to fall.

      January 18, 2012 at 3:14 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.