home
RSS
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. gary

    Evangelicals are delusional whackos. God is pretend. Bible is warped folklore.

    January 18, 2012 at 4:01 pm |
  2. Joe

    BRAIN'S-EEEEEE BRAIN'SSSSSSSSSSS It's like being in a zombie movie hearing all the Texas radio listeners spew sound bytes their repeating off of talk radio show's like it's their own opinions!!!!!! Being a Republican for 30 years, I can safely say I think the Republicans went after a base of people that are succeptable for the intent purpose of brain washing them.!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I MEAN THEY DON'T EVEN REMEMBER ANYTIME A REPUBLICAN FLIP FLOPS, OR BLAMES THE DEMOCRATS FOR SOMETHING THE REPUBLICANS STARTED. IT'S LIKE CHILDREN THAT ARE VERY SUCCEPTABLE TO SUGGESTION, OR SOMETHING. THE BAD PART IS WHILE I'VE ALWAYS SUSPECTED THINGS BEFORE, THE LAST FEW YEARS HAVE MADE IT ABUNDANTLY CLEAR!!!! THEY PACKAGED A PLATFORM THAT FOOLED ME FOR SO LONG, NOW THERE ARE SO MANY THAT WOULD RATHER BELIEVE ITS SOMEONES ELSE'S FAULT AS OPPOSED TO ACCEPTING WE'VE ALL BEEN TAKEN FOR A LONG RIDE BY THE REPUBLICAN PARTY.

    I HAVE NEVER VOTED FOR A DEMOCRAT TO BE PRESIDENT, BUT I DON'T KNOW HOW I COULD NOT VOTE FOR OBAMA. CONSIDERING THE REPUBLICANS HAD THE NERVE TO BLAME HIM FOR WHAT 30 YEARS OF REPUBLICAN POLITICS HAS CREATED, SO I HOPE ALL THE REPUBLICANS OUT THERE START TO THINK ABOUT THINGS AND QUESTION OUR ACTIONS. WE MAY HAVE SUPPORTED A MOVEMENT THAT UNDERMINED ALOT OF PROGRESS AMERICA HAS SEEN BUT WE CAN CHANGE IT BY SAYING NO MORE AND CONSIDER VOTING DEMOCRAT!!! IN THE MEAN TIME I WILL CONTINUE TO PLAY ZOMBIE SO I CAN GET ALONG WITH ALL THE REPUBLICAN ZOMBIES HERE IN TEXAS!!!!!

    BRAIN'SSSSSSSSSS

    January 18, 2012 at 3:59 pm |
    • David.Edwards

      This 30 year Republican is with you. what that My party has turned to in the last 10 years is pure crap - I want my party back!

      January 18, 2012 at 4:40 pm |
  3. Dante666

    SHOCKING! The problem with the Republican Party is and has been their sell out to the Christian right! I hear a lot about the virtues of the Evangelistic following – then I listen to their comments about immigrtion and muslims and the thought hits me.
    NOW ISN'T THAT CHRISTIAN OF THEM!!!
    WE NEED RELIGION OUT OF OUR GOVERNMENT THINKING – IT IS A JOKE AT BEST AND A TRADEGY AT WORST.

    January 18, 2012 at 3:55 pm |
    • David, CA

      You want to hear something totally evil- just listen to the lies the "evangelicals" tell about gays and lesbians. Jesus would vomit from all the evil words they shove in his mouth.

      January 18, 2012 at 4:02 pm |
  4. David, CA

    These "evangelical" so called leaders are EVERYTHING that is wrong with America. Divisive, exclusionary, paranoid, hypocritical, and yes- RACIST. Remember GWB said he let his "faith" guide him. It guided us right into an illegal WAR with a country. These people need to realize that the USA is a country of many faiths and cultures. It's not all about THEM (rich white psychos)

    January 18, 2012 at 3:52 pm |
    • MartinT

      HIGH FIVE THERE MY MAN!

      January 18, 2012 at 3:52 pm |
    • David, CA

      On a side note- I love the demonic fiery red shine in her eyes. One almost expects fangs to shoot out of this blood sucker.

      January 18, 2012 at 3:59 pm |
  5. Joe

    Look at the Republican controlled states and it actually does suggest the Southern plantation states during the confederacy have regrouped under the Republican Party!!! Some that weren't around still have the same social economic model so they've settled there I guess!!!! I live in Texas where people actually talk repeating sound bytes of the "shock jock radio talk show hosts sound bytes of the day" but they don't even realize they've lost the ability to think for themselves and pretend opinions are repeating a radio talk show hosts opinions that have been sold to the highest bidding advertiser. ITS UNBELIEVABLE TO LISTEN TO THEM, THEY CAN'T EXPLAIN A REASON FOR A POSITION BUT TO HEAR THEM SAY THINGS LIKE THEY BELIEVE ITS PATRIOTIC MAKES ME FEEL LIKE I'M IN THE BOOK "1984" WHERE BIG BROTHER HAS TAKEN OVER??????

    January 18, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
  6. Moe Smith

    Evangelical Power Broker is another term for Religious Lobbyist. fnck them all

    January 18, 2012 at 3:48 pm |
  7. David.Edwards

    Take back our country from whom? The FAR FAR Right GOPers - then good!

    January 18, 2012 at 3:48 pm |
  8. David.Edwards

    10,000 people trying to control 300Million people – what they say, what they do, what they read, what they believe. The thing is with these people, in 10-15 years they will be gone and this world will be a much better place. Unless, they are teaching their kids to hate and that color of skin does matter.

    January 18, 2012 at 3:46 pm |
  9. Eleanor Greene

    Take back our country from whom?

    January 18, 2012 at 3:46 pm |
  10. Snow

    Kinda begins to dawn that your religious leaders and pious masters are nothing but political sc.umbags 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 3:46 pm |
  11. Joe

    Be careful about your comments, she might cast a spell on us!!!!!

    January 18, 2012 at 3:45 pm |
  12. Royal

    South Carolina is a backward state real Americans are looking forward. The south lost ha ha. Go Obama!

    January 18, 2012 at 3:43 pm |
  13. Joe

    Evangelical is just putting a smile & nice speech coded in bigotry, idolatry, and hate that is designed to control the sheep from a higher moral platform but in the end it's the same as the old KKK or Hitler Germany's Third Reich. It believes in the domination through assimilation of the masses using a religious base to keep it appearing like the moral high ground.

    January 18, 2012 at 3:43 pm |
  14. Joe

    Republican politics are not motivated by anything other than money, and unregulated monopoly franchises sold off to the highest bidder. They don't care what Religion or what country they sell it to as long as there's a pay off for their wealthy 1%!!!!!!! It's about power & money while providing an illusion of "FREE MARKETS" that are ultimately controlled at the top!!!

    January 18, 2012 at 3:40 pm |
  15. whatever

    So she says.. “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.”
    Someone has not closely read the whole Bible – if it were followed word for word in practice, especially the Old Testament, the evangelicals would make the Taliban look peaceful.

    January 18, 2012 at 3:40 pm |
    • mebury

      do you think the bible you read now is actually THE bible?...educate yourselves please. how many edits?... how many self serving versions?

      January 18, 2012 at 4:01 pm |
  16. Royal

    If the repugnant/ tea Baggers/confederate lovers are so about family. Why do they disparage the African American Community. Peoples who are in the position no fault of their own.

    January 18, 2012 at 3:36 pm |
  17. Joe

    It's all about supporting your base by proportions, so he'll break up different sectors as gifts to all his base.

    The Mormons will get a share, as will big corporations, the military industrial complex, any foreign countries that pledge allegiance to American corporations by enslaving their populations under Republican redistributionist "FREE MARKET" economics other wise known as "SUB TIER TRICKLE DOWN ECONOMICS", drug cartels will get increased protection by expansion of Drug Enforcement so as to continue the sham "War on Drugs" to ensure the highest prices for drug cartels, and even state employees will see some goodies in the form of new jobs as jailers and prison guards, the American Medical Association will see a boon doggle by controlling the amount of Doctors trained and Republican deregulation social security & medicare prices will sky rocket so Doctors will go along as well. Last but not least Wall Street will control the stock market for unregulated manipulation with the new Republican agenda of privatizing the entire pension industry so the next generations pensions will vanish into a strange down turn in stocks some time before their average retirement age.

    THE REPUBLICANS CANNOT FLEECE EVERYONE IF THEIR PLANS OF CORPORATE HANDSOUT DON'T ENTICE US ALL!!!!

    January 18, 2012 at 3:36 pm |
  18. JoeT

    She kinda reminds me of a modern Frau Goebbels.

    January 18, 2012 at 3:36 pm |
  19. Apham

    This is incredibly hypocritical for any evangelical to endorse Mitt is almost like endorsing a Muslim.
    I hope this woman will have the same open mind when it comes to any other faith than a Christian running for a high office in this country. Unfortunately, political victory is more important to some Christians than spiritual victory which comes from accepting Jesus as you personal Lord and savior. You have a President in the White house who is a Christian, morally un-reproachable comparative than some option in the Republican race, yet voting for a Mormon comes very natural for some evangelical than voting for a democratic Christian president. Hmmmm… something smells very rotten about that!!

    January 18, 2012 at 3:35 pm |
    • Willie12345

      So, you're a bigot ?

      January 18, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
  20. Williamsburg Co. GOP GIRL

    I personally know Cindy Costa and she is a fine person. As for Cindy, she and the rest of us will do what it takes to take back our country. We will all get behind the winner of the GOP primary and defeat Obama.
    Obama is the worst failure I have seen as the President in my lifetime. We will unite for the good of America and Cindy will lead the charge in South Carolina. GO Cindy!

    January 18, 2012 at 3:35 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      Were you asleep during the Dubya administration?
      Talk about failure! He managed to take a country with hundreds of billions of dollars surplus and plunge it into hundreds of billions of dollars of debt, plus destroy international opinion of America by entering into an unlawful, pre-emptive war for reasons that proved erroneous.
      For the love of anything sacred – the man was incapable of forming a coherent sentence!
      Trickle-down economic theory – the great Reagan legacy – is responsible for the ghastly disaparity between rich and poor, which was protested the world over last year.
      But let me guess – you think Obama is muslim/atheist/communist and that he must be a failure because he couldn't patch together the US economy in a way you like after inheriting Dubya's FUBAR policies.

      January 18, 2012 at 3:47 pm |
    • palintwit

      You baggers are going to "take back" the country and launch us forward to the 12th century.

      January 18, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
    • Lucifer's Evil Twin

      Cindy Costa is a used up tampon. She is a sycophant of Pat Robertson, which automatically bars her from having any reasonable grasp on reality.

      January 18, 2012 at 3:57 pm |
    • David, CA

      Wow- Obama the worst president? REALLY? Is it because he hasn't lied to invade a country? Is it because he stands up for the poor and the gays? Is it because he inherited a complete economic DISASTER left by a republican administration? Is it because president Obama has NOT gotten thousands and thousands of human beings killed? Is it because despite the obstructionists of the GOP congress he has actually managed to turn the economy around? Exactly when was your lobotomy you complete m o r o n?

      January 18, 2012 at 3:58 pm |
    • mebury

      could you imagine if these religious wack jobs actually get into power....making decisions because an imaginary cloud beng told them so....sounds like fun. seems to work well in Iran.

      January 18, 2012 at 4:07 pm |
    • hippie power 69

      i want to know where you are taking our country back to? the south will rise again? you are unbelievable. you belong back in the 1950's cindy, or in stepford. you call yourself a christian and you are no such thing. shame on you and shame on your morals gop girl. south carolina is a sorry excuse for a state. you should still call yourselves a plantation. south carolina ranks last in education in the usa. are you wanting to take us all back to that? if you consider obama the worst president i guess that means he is the best since you are so dumb.

      January 18, 2012 at 4:10 pm |
    • Lucifer's Evil Twin

      @hippie power – groovy man

      January 18, 2012 at 4:14 pm |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25
Advertisement
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.