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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. Karl Nelson

    Contrary to popular belief 95% of our Founding Fathers were Bible Believing Christians, they sought to start a nation under the principles found in the Bible. Some even declared that our country could NOT function properly unless it was run under a bible believing moral people. Therefore, it would seem to me that the faith of a canidate and his moral foundation be an extremely important qualification. Note: In the early years of America it was sometimes a requirement that a canidate be a Christian even to run for office.

    January 18, 2012 at 1:27 pm |
    • jemzinthekop

      95% of current Americans could be bible believing Christians, that doesn't mean they are right though. Universal truth should not be measured in mass appeal.

      January 18, 2012 at 1:31 pm |
    • Drinker

      Not true and even if it were, so what? Progress is a good thing, time to move beyond believing in fairytales.

      January 18, 2012 at 1:32 pm |
    • Zenichi-Maro

      Oh, HORSEPUCKY! That is SUCH a tired and entirely disproven argument! Jefferson said (among many things) "It matters not to me if my neighbor believes in one god or 20; it neither breaks my leg nor picks my pocket." Hardly the words of a guy who thinks that we should all be worshipping Jeebus. Adams, in the Treaty of Tripoli, SPECIFICALLY REFUTES the notion that the US was founded as a so-called Christian nation. Franklin was a Deist.

      If you'd read some history–that is, actual history, not what the Christian Taliban allow you to read–you might learn how entirely ridiculous your assertion is on its face.

      January 18, 2012 at 2:29 pm |
  2. bk753

    Lemme get this straight... An influential Southern Christian Evangelical, bypasses endorsing a staunch Christian like Rick Santorum, or a Southerner like Newt Gingrich... to throw her significant support behind an uber-wealthy Massachusetts Mormon?? My question then is... who paid her off and how much did it cost? Something smells funny here...

    January 18, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
    • jbmmmm

      you got that right!! The Chrisian faith does not consider Mormons to be Christians at all. They discount the Bible and its teachings and have replaced it with there own.

      January 18, 2012 at 1:30 pm |
    • Cyril Wolfe

      I hope you know more about the Bible than you do about Mormons. Though I am not optimistic....

      January 18, 2012 at 1:45 pm |
  3. He gave it to her

    You know he had his way with her! What a little devil! If President Obama doesnt get re-elected I am moving out of the country and will watch it sink.

    January 18, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
    • John

      Goodbye you blind, ignorant loser. What has your candidate done for this country besides line his own pockets and raise the dept ceiling. You dumb s&^t. Go to France where all the other Socialists reside.

      January 18, 2012 at 1:31 pm |
    • He gave it to her

      John if a republican wins have fun as America turns into a 3rd world country!!! Remember who got us into this mess to begin with? Oh yes, no one seems to like to mention pres bush!!! hmmm how convinient all the republican canidates never even mention his name! wow! Talk about blind and ignorant!

      January 18, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
  4. Andy

    Maybe Mitt will give her some magical underwear.

    January 18, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
  5. chief

    Costa says her support for the candidate is largely rooted in her evangelical Christian faith.

    costa makes me sick and i am a Christian, evangelical, and not a mormon fan

    January 18, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
    • jbmmmm

      Doesnt matter. Costa has replaced her own Biblical beliefs for lies.Very tricky of mittens to get a Hispanic named Thumper from the belt

      January 18, 2012 at 1:34 pm |
  6. Monbois

    Costa's a hate-mongering k*nt!

    January 18, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
    • John

      and you are a what????????

      January 18, 2012 at 1:29 pm |
    • James

      no pues no estoy diciendo ke va a lalger a instancias finales con esta selecccion ya ke esta no tiene mucha experiencia ..ya casi es sub 20pero cuando segun dicen ke gana la copa oro porq los demas equipos son bajosy porq cuando a sido invitado a la copa america llega a finales y a semi en las 7 veces ke a sido invitado y los ke son de gran futbol namas es argentina, brasil mexico y uruguay

      April 1, 2012 at 8:32 am |
  7. palintwit

    Evangelicals believe that the earth is only 6,000 years old and that early man rode dinosaurs to church every Sunday.

    January 18, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
    • chief

      not all, only the the non thinking part... about 40%

      January 18, 2012 at 1:25 pm |
    • HamsterDancer

      LMAO!
      Yabba-Dabba-Doo!!!

      January 18, 2012 at 1:31 pm |
  8. GH

    Cindy Costa needs to actually do some research into the doctrines of Christianity and the Mormon Church. The Mormon Church does not follow Christian theology – very different. As far as who will be the best choice for the GOP? Right now I know it's not Mitt Romney (the income divide is due to my envy?). He's over the top arrogant. I'm registered Republican (the tag seems to matter to a lot of people), but choose to vote for the candidate I think will do the best job for the people and country regardless of their affiliation. So far, I don't see any hopefuls! Just when I was getting like Ron Paul! It's going to be a tough election.

    January 18, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
    • CrazyAtes1983

      You're right: Mormons do not follow the typical Christian theology.... maybe you should do some research into the Council at Nicea and see how man decided to describe God and Jesus. Maybe that'll put some brains in your skull.

      January 18, 2012 at 1:37 pm |
    • Cyril Wolfe

      I am not sure typical Christian theology is biblical....or always very Christian. You must be ignoring the fact the Christianity has argued with itself in disunity of faith and doctrine for almost 2000 years. I strongly doubt a 1st century Christian would recognize today's Christianity. So leave the Mormon bashing and take a look at yourselves.....

      January 18, 2012 at 1:49 pm |
  9. look carefully

    Take a look at every cross that has a Jesus Christ being executed on it. Do you really think that a higher power that loves everyone really thinks it's righteous to have a man being tortured to death to be seen ny people or something barbaric and evil? The devil tricked the world, armaggeddon is coming and no superman is going to save us.

    January 18, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
    • jbmmmm

      You must be a 12 year old SHUT-IN

      January 18, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
    • rick

      No armegeddon is coming.

      January 18, 2012 at 1:47 pm |
  10. sayer

    What the h*ll?!

    January 18, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
  11. Charles Bowen

    The Bible is a story written by men to controll the masses. God did not write it ,he had absolutly nothing to do with the Holy Book.. The word of god is not gods words.... Charles Bowen Solomon Stone

    January 18, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
    • jbmmmm

      Spoken like a mormon!! Another 12 year old

      January 18, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
  12. clarke

    I have no problem with any religion. I feel religion is a personal thing, one that you do not need to wear on your sleeve.

    January 18, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
  13. left coast 1

    This woman scares me. She is using her money to impose her religion on us. We don't need a second Ronald Reagan. The first one set enough bad polices into motion. We need a Democratic Congress and Obama to help bring balance back to the US. The Republicans are set to send us over the right cliff back to the 18th century.

    January 18, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
  14. jimbo

    “My faith is the most important thing – my husband and family are second.”

    That right there is the danger of religion. Putting an imaginary being first, before something that actually exists, because you don't have the rational mind to think "Hey, this religion stuff doesn't make any sense and flies in the face of science/enlightenment."

    January 18, 2012 at 1:23 pm |
  15. Gary

    Is there a dislike button?! Romney is going to be like Reagan and both Bushs. Please leave religion out of this. He's agreeing to things so he can get votes!

    January 18, 2012 at 1:23 pm |
  16. P.G

    They're both really of the same religion. Pray to the almighty dollar. F- everyone else.

    January 18, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
    • Andy

      Truest statement I've heard all day.

      January 18, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
  17. Patrick

    I would bet good money this broad has major calluses on her back, knees, and lips. I bet she's been passed around the evangelical community as much as the donation dish at a sunday catholic mass...lol, I crack myself up!

    January 18, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
    • P.G

      Agreed.... passed around like a drunken cheerleader – thats why her husband vulcanized her face.

      January 18, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
  18. Sanity

    Feb, 201, Obama:

    "He detailed how, after a non-religious upbringing, he came to define himself as a Christian.

    “A call rooted in faith is what led me, just a few years out of college, to sign up as a community organizer for a group of churches on the south side of Chicago,” he said.

    “And it was through that experience, working with pastors and laypeople, trying to heal the wounds of hurting neighborhoods, that I came to know Jesus Christ for myself and embrace him as my Lord and Savior.”

    January 18, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
    • BusyPerson

      Rev Wright's church?

      January 18, 2012 at 1:31 pm |
  19. Cando

    Doesnt matter what his religious beliefs are. The problem is this guy cannot idenfity with most Americans because of his very wealthy background. Even if you identify with his political principles, he is not the right guy for the job! His perspective on life is just too different from the vast majority of americans. Tea Baggers need to find a candidate that represents their idiology and understands the average american. Then, we would have a real choice in the next election.

    January 18, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
    • John

      In the meantime you'll continue to vote for Obama who is backed by guys like George Sorros and Paul Allen who have more money than anyone the Republicans can roll out. The lefties are extra hypocritical today.

      January 18, 2012 at 1:27 pm |
    • rick

      John: Sure are making an as-sump-tion as to Cando's political affilitation. Did he or she insult your savior?

      January 18, 2012 at 1:50 pm |
  20. Grinning Libber

    The fundies are being suckered again. Happens every four years.

    January 18, 2012 at 1:21 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.