The rise of Mr. Straus, a fiscal conservative who has not toed the conservative line on issues like abortion and gay rights, was widely seen as a defeat for the socially conservative wing of the party.
"The Republican Party is moving a little bit more toward the center," said James Henson of the political science department at the University of Texas, Austin. "I think what we have is a much more competitive state than it looks like on a statewide level."
Mr. Straus certainly cuts a different figure than past speakers. For starters, he is the first Jewish speaker since Texas became a state, in a political culture dominated by Christians. (David S. Kaufman, also a Jew, served as speaker in the Congress of the Republic of Texas from 1839 to 1841, before statehood.)
Mr. Straus also lacks the folksy drawl and down-home lingo of his immediate predecessors, Mr. Craddick and Pete Laney, a Democrat, both from West Texas.
A partner in a financial services firm, Mr. Straus comes off as a telegenic urbane man from Alamo Heights, an affluent city within San Antonio, what some folks here like to call "a country-club Republican." He is a man of few words, friends and colleagues say.
"He's thoughtful, a listener," said Representative Dan Branch, a Dallas Republican who has known him since childhood. "Plays his cards close. A lot of people have underestimated him or counted his vote too quickly."
For his part, Mr. Straus, 49, has said only that he wants to heal the partisan gashes in the House that opened under Mr. Craddick's iron rule over the last six years.
The new speaker has not made it clear what his legislative priorities are, beyond balancing the budget. As he took over the reins on Jan. 13, he said: "We will create an atmosphere where everyone's voice can and should be heard. A place where we respect each other's points of view — Democrat and Republican, urban and rural, liberal and conservative."
Though a neophyte in the Legislature, Mr. Straus comes from a widely known Republican family. His father, a Republican donor, is a major player in the horse-racing business in San Antonio; his mother had a prominent role in the campaigns of Senator John G. Tower in the 1970s and George Bush's race for president in 1988. Mr. Straus cut his political teeth working on Mr. Tower's campaigns and worked in the administrations of Ronald Reagan and the first President Bush.
But he did not jump into politics as a candidate until 2005, when he won a special election for the State House seat in his home district. He quickly earned a reputation as a maverick, opposing Mr. Craddick on several important bills. He voted against banning gay men and lesbians from serving as foster parents and against a ban on late-term abortions. (His wife, Julie Brink Straus, was on the board of Planned Parenthood in the early 1990s.)
Many lawmakers said privately that Mr. Craddick had dug his own grave. In 2003, he became the first Republican speaker in the state's history, but he quickly earned enemies, even in his own party, with an autocratic style. He froze most Democrats out of decision-making and financed challengers to several incumbents in both parties who bucked his leadership, breaking a longstanding taboo in Texas.
Disgruntled Republicans revolted at the end of the last session in 2007, but Mr. Craddick would not let a motion for his removal go to the floor for a vote.
Then came the 2008 elections. Despite having controlled redistricting, the Republicans lost 12 seats. Democratic turnout was high, swing voters migrated to the Democrats and many Republicans stayed home because they were disenchanted with President George W. Bush, politicians here say. The Republican Party wound up with a small majority — 76 to 74. What is more, the party held on to one of those seats by just 19 votes.
Still smarting from the election, 11 Republicans, among them powerful committee chairmen, formed an alliance to oust Mr. Craddick and made a deal with the Democrats: in return for Democratic support, they would field a moderate candidate.
Then, in early January, the 11 met at a home in Austin and, like cardinals, tried to choose a leader. Friends said Mr. Straus had no hope going in that he would end up on top. But after five ballots, he emerged as a compromise candidate.
"I think the most surprised person was Joe," recalled Representative Brian McCall, a Republican from Plano who was one of the 11.
Still, some conservatives who were in Mr. Craddick's camp say Mr. Straus's victory may not reflect a sea change in Texas politics. He faces a tough job, some say. His Democratic supporters will still look to win back the majority in the next election and depose him. Conservative Republicans, meanwhile, will be looking for any sign of weakness in his coalition to wrest the speakership back. Some in the right wing of the party regard his ascendance as a fluke.
"Straus is just a big question mark," said one Craddick supporter, who requested anonymity because he feared he would lose his committee assignments. "He's the classic case of being in the right place at the right time."