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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. ObamaJoe

    Where is Bob ???????????????

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

      helloo Bob,,,,,,,,,,,how did you post youtube at CNN?

      January 18, 2012 at 12:58 pm |
  2. Truthwillsetyoufree

    Since when does born again relate to lobotomized people...

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

      The oblivious Lamb of Christ's Calvanistic brother Ba'alzebub, the other Son of God, following a Judas Goat, is today's evangelical. In Reagan's time Evangelicals were aware, as Christ commands, but now they are in sin. (original sin)

      January 18, 2012 at 1:01 pm |
    • Barry G.

      Christians have been misunderstood, slandered, maligned and persecuted, since the beginning. Our lord, himself, was unjustly executed.

      We, who believe in Christ, are used to such persecution, persisted until the fourth century C.E., and has reared its ugly head again and again.

      May it comfort you to know that you stand with vile Roman emperors, who hated and persecuted the faithful. Your reward will, no doubt, be as great as theirs is.

      January 18, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
  3. Mormons

    She does not mind a heretic as president as longs as he gets rid of Obama. I bet she is secretly okay with some abortions in some neighborhoods and expects to be first on the rapture ride.

    January 18, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
    • William Demuth

      The only thing she id first to ride on is the Baloney Pony

      January 18, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
    • Jon Durham

      Absolutely... I am sure that an unwed pregnancy that might make people uncomfortable in Church would be the kind of thing you get taken care of in private. It's these abortions done where God can see that bother the evangelicals.

      January 18, 2012 at 1:03 pm |
  4. Jon Durham

    "Let the women learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence. For Adam was first formed, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression." (I Timothy 2:11-14)

    January 18, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
  5. Ted

    Baker, Ca! Does that make her qualified to say ANYTHING? LOL! OBAMA 2012!

    January 18, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
  6. Straighten up, kids

    Who do those 'eeevangelicals" think they are, that they should judge who's Christian or not??? Since my childhood as a catholic I have been weary of those hopping and dancing handraising speaking in twisted tongues socalled christians. That's not how you respectfully worship what we consider our God? Christian rock bands? Just what Jesus did, he played bass, right?
    To clarify: People can call themselves whatever they want. But to those evangelicals: just think, others might not take you serious either. Those kinds of things can go both ways.
    Mitt says he's a man of faith, shouldn't that be enough? More important, who cares how he prays? Would he be a good president? A president for the people, or a corporate spokesperson for the rich??? In light of his not so open tax disclosures I have a feeling that Romney is pretty much out of touch with the American middle class.
    Yes, that middle class still exists. And it's NOT class warfare to bring that up and show how our purchasing power is declining, our rights as voting citizens are pushed aside in favor of "Corporations who are People" and their money.

    Wake up, America, don't buy into the fake patriotism and campaign slogans of the country boy club members. (although I don't see Newt hitting any golf balls straight). Very few of those trigger happy 'national security -chicken-hawks' have made any sacrifices, instead they consult and invest and reap more and more money from stocks that don't mean a thing in terms of real work.
    The real work to keep this country running is done by the middle and lower classes. We are the ones who show up 5 days a week for work, unless you have to have 2 or 3 jobs to make ends meet (No, George W, it's not a great achievement that in this country 'people can have 3 jobs', it testifies how rotten it all has become)

    January 18, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
    • pico

      Great post

      January 18, 2012 at 2:39 pm |
  7. ObamaJoe

    You don't know Jesus,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,dude,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,

    January 18, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
    • jtarver

      The King of the Jews prophesy predicts Christ to be black, like Obama. This would indicate all Mormon who died before 1972 are in Hell.

      January 18, 2012 at 12:58 pm |
    • ObamaJoe

      you don't know black,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,it's the color of your heart,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,

      January 18, 2012 at 12:59 pm |
  8. STOP INTERNET CENSORSHIP

    http://vimeo.com/31100268

    http://americancensorship.org/

    [vimeo http://www.vimeo.com/31100268 w=400&h=225]PROTECT IP / SOPA Breaks The Internet from Fight for the Future on Vimeo.

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

      who cares,,,,,,,,,,,,,

      January 18, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
    • Ted

      ObamaJoe – I suggest you spend some time looking at the bill on internet security! I think you will change your mind about caring!

      January 18, 2012 at 12:58 pm |
    • ObamaJoe

      Why,,,,,,,,,,,,,I don't understand,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,

      January 18, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
    • Ted

      OBAMAJOE! They are trying to censor the internet! Is that something you don't care about?

      January 18, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
  9. William Demuth

    The Jesus freaks support the Mormon cult master because they LOATHE a Keffer in the White House

    January 18, 2012 at 12:54 pm |
    • Barry G.

      I'm what you'd call a Jesus freak, and you have no idea what I believe or want.

      Let me help you.

      Jesus desired above all else that people be fair and just to others; he despised corruption; and he had a special place in his heart for the poor and the weak. He taught us to be servants of all, not to judge, to be compassionate, and to love everyone, even our enemies.

      Jesus supported the teachings of the great Hebrew prophets, like Isaiah, who wrote: Let justice flow like a river, let righteousness flow like a stream.

      Perhaps the words Job(e) spoke to his friends would be appropriate for you: Job(e) said: For you silence would be wisdom.

      January 18, 2012 at 1:01 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Barry.

      Spare me the cult propoganda. Your God is a fabrication. He is no more real than Spiderman.

      Just because you believe in Fairy Tales, don't act as if your imaginary freind is real!.

      January 18, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
  10. Johnny 5

    A delusional person backing a delusional person that happens to be running for president. Seems fitting enough. Hopefully their delusions don't play a role on how our country runs.

    January 18, 2012 at 12:54 pm |
  11. clc777

    getting real tired of his GOP, Republicans plan with our lives coming off as a good Christian people
    doesn't make any difference who is running for the White House, the hold countries all screwed up, Democrats, Republicans playing games with the United States with our finances with our military. This is getting out of hand.

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

      Agreed!

      January 18, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
  12. Stephen Colbert

    Vote Herman Cain!

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

      She has Satan eyes. I don't trust her. I will vote for R.P.

      January 18, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
    • Straighten up, kids

      Herman Cain? That corporate dude who pouts when someone disagrees and doesn't know diddley doodle about the world outside his clouded mind? That one who'd like to be secretary of deeeefense? Laughable.

      January 18, 2012 at 12:59 pm |
    • Ted

      Mr. Cain, I would like a pizza with everything on it! Any idea when you will deliver?

      January 18, 2012 at 1:08 pm |
  13. palintwit

    She has that milf look about her. I wonder if she'd consider letting me film her whle she bumps whisker biscuits with Sarah Palin?

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

      LOL! Your demented!

      January 18, 2012 at 1:09 pm |
  14. ScreenAngel

    For a country that was founded for religious freedom, it's sad to see how our political system can be held hostage by religious extremists. The self-righteousness of these evangelicals, even as they express their hatred for various groups, is beyond hypocrisy.

    January 18, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
    • Larry LeSueur

      ScreenAngel

      Although not an evangelical, you are upset with them and their hatred for various groups all the while you seem to hate them.

      January 18, 2012 at 1:01 pm |
  15. t

    Sweet lord jesus, if only the republicans could ditch the religious right instead of embrace it we would have a chance.
    this woman represents THE fundamental flaw in the republican party–the unabashed re-integration of church and state.
    btw, nice plastic surgery.

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

      Yes! I think the Republican party is doomed to be stuck with these religious nuts! We should vote against any Religious involvement in our government! We just got through fighting an un-win-able war in IRAQ for the same reason! A Religious war seems to be what we are building up too minus the weapons.................for now! Hearing some of the things coming out of some of these candidates mouths, I wouldn't doubt weapons may be not too far away!

      January 18, 2012 at 1:03 pm |
  16. John

    i would not vote for Pat Robertson either and she backed him for president

    January 18, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
  17. ObamaJoe

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

    January 18, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
  18. Godstar

    Mormons and Evangelicals hand in hand? They have little to nothing in common, so I suppose politics truly does make for strange bedfellows. Let's just hope it's not literally as well.

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

      Yes, anything to get rid of OBAMA!

      OBAMA 2012!

      January 18, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
  19. Jason

    The pin on her lapel might say Romney, but her face has plastic surgery written all over it! What does her God say about that? Hypocrite!!!

    January 18, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
  20. John

    Mormons are NOT Christians. Why is it so hard for you people to understand this.

    January 18, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
    • J.W

      Explain why they are not.

      January 18, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
    • William Demuth

      JW

      For the same reason Jews aren't

      January 18, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
    • J.W

      But Jews do not believe Jesus is the Messiah, but from what I understand Mormons do believe that.

      January 18, 2012 at 12:58 pm |
    • nickZadick

      all organised religions are invented and have no basis in fact...why is it important which one you believe?

      January 18, 2012 at 12:59 pm |
    • Brian

      Of course Mormons are Christians. They believe in the divinity of and follow the teachings of Jesus Christ, so they fit the two most universally accepted definitions of the word Christian.

      January 18, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
    • Trinity

      Mormon faith is founded on JESUS CHRIST our Savior and Redeemer. It is sad that there's so many people uniformed and very willing to make such statement as denying ones truly believes. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is the name of the Church. Have a blessed day John.

      January 18, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
    • ObamaJoe

      better than fake christian ,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,if they are not real christian,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,so what

      January 18, 2012 at 1:02 pm |
    • Terry

      Because I'm a Mormon and Christ is central to my beliefs. He paid for my sins and I strive to follow his perfect example.

      January 18, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
    • fred

      They believe Jesus died for our sins and is our savior. They believe in Christ as the son of God. Then like the Catholics began to add stuff. So, are Catholics Christian? Basically, they both believe the old and new testament then the fun begins. With Mormons we add: God had many sons, there is no trinity as God / Christ / Holy Spirit are separate, we get to become gods with our own planet if we do it right, the Bible got it wrong so Joseph Smith and other leaders took it upon them selves to correct it, they believe in works not simply grace.
      In short they are really out there but, probably not far enough to say they are not Christian. God is big enough to pull those Mormons with a right heart into heaven if God so chooses just like any of us.

      January 18, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
    • William Demuth

      JW

      Mormons do NOT believe in the Trinity.

      Mormons do NOT believe in heaven (You get a free planet instead, and some magic underwear.)

      Mormons are far further from Christianity than Jews are, but the cult knows the rednecks are powerful, so they play the game.

      January 18, 2012 at 1:16 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.