A Texas Tea Party member on Election Night 2010. (Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)

Last month, Texas primary voters started receiving robocalls urging them to jettison the Republican speaker of the state House of Representatives, Joe Straus, who is Jewish, in favor of a “true Christian.” Ray Myers, chairman of the Kaufman County Tea Party, sent out a widely circulated email supporting one of Straus’ opponents and saying, “[W]e finally found a Christian Conservative who decided not to be pushed around by the Joe Straus thugs.” Another viral email promised, “Straus is going down in Jesus [sic] name.”

This wasn’t just a fringe phenomenon. Similar rhetoric came from the highest echelons of the Texas GOP. In late November, the Texas Observer obtained emails between two members of the State Republican Executive Committee, John Cook and Rebecca Williamson. Williamson had sent colleagues an email defending Straus’ conservative bona fides. Cook responded by saying, “We elected a house with Christian, conservative values. We now want a true Christian, conservative running it.” When the Texas Observer contacted Cook, he elaborated, “I want to make sure that a person I’m supporting is going to have my values. It’s not anything about Jews and whether I think their religion is right or Muslims and whether I think their religion is right. … I got into politics to put Christian conservatives into office. They’re the people that do the best jobs over all.”

Some of the references to Christian values may, as some have argued, have been less overt anti-Semitism than shorthand for a certain kind of Texas ultra-conservatism. “We didn’t even realize he was Jewish until all this came up,” Myers says when reached by phone. “I grew up here in Kaufman County, and it was just kind of a common thing to say, Christian conservative, constitutional conservative. It wasn’t anything we ever used in reference to anybody else’s religion.”

What is clear is this: Texas tea party activists are targeting Straus, a fiscal conservative, as somehow culturally and ideologically alien, and at least some of his enemies are using religion against him. He’s still favored to win the election for House Speaker on January 11 and remains popular with his caucus. But the anti-Straus campaign, which is beginning to draw national attention, is the latest piece of evidence that the Tea Party is simply the Christian right by another name. Straus isn’t under attack because of his position on taxes or deficits. This is about culture war, and it’s a microcosm of current Republican politics, in which populist activists abhor any hint of moderation.

Tea Party groups have started protesting outside the offices of Texas House members who have pledged to back Straus, and a few representatives have withdrawn their support, citing the will of their constituents. On December 12, Representative Randy Weber announced his switch on his Facebook page: “My District has spoken & I have listened. Please pray that Texas will be strengthened and in GOD’s will, no matter who the Speaker is.” Last month, likely Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, the Fox News host and former Arkansas governor, entered the fray, endorsing one of Straus’ opponents, Ken Paxton, who, according to Rice University political scientist Mark P. Jones, is part of the “extreme wing” of the already extremely conservative Texas Republican Party.

Though Straus has been caricatured as a liberal, the reality is more complicated. It’s true, as Jones says, that “Straus is much more of a moderate than most of the Republicans in the state house,” particularly on social issues. But that’s saying very little. A newsletter circulated by Peter Morrison, treasurer of the Hardin County Republican Party—and a frequent contributor to the white nationalist, indisputably anti-Semitic website V-Dare—claims, “Joe Straus is pro-abortion. In fact, his rabbi sits on the board of San Antonio Planned Parenthood.” But while Straus hasn’t been as hostile to family planning as other Republicans, he’s not pro-choice. Kyleen Wright, president of the Texans for Life Coalition, says he’s been a major ally of hers.

Wright has been taken aback by the anti-Straus vitriol. “Just like record numbers of African-Americans came out to the polls [for Obama], it’s always nice to have someone who looks and talks and thinks like you do,” she says. “From that standpoint I can kind of understand it.” But the “demonization” of Straus, she says, “has been over the top and disappointing. One moment he’s pro-abortion, next moment he’s an abortionist. All the claims about him just grow and grow and grow.” Besides, she adds, Judaism is a mainstream faith. “It’s not some weird scary religion that he’s a part of.”

Myers, the Kaufman County Tea Party chairman, insists that Straus’ Judaism isn’t the point. The problem with Straus, he says, is that he’s a liberal: pro-choice, pro-immigrant, and anti-gun. He’s corrupt, Myers insists, owned by the gambling industry. (According to the Dallas Morning News, Straus has “bowed out of any gambling discussion” because his family has interests in racetracks.”) He’s part of the same malign movement that made the intolerable Obama president.

“Barack Obama’s the catalyst in this whole thing,” says Myers. “He’s the one that’s tried to move our country to a socialist society and tried to break the bank on it. We certainly don’t want that in Texas.” He continues: “We see [Straus] as just an extension of the liberal establishment in Washington. It doesn’t have anything to do with his religion.”

But it doesn’t really have anything to do with his economic policies, either. Asked if he considers Straus a fiscal conservative, Myers says he’s not sure. “I did not see a lot of things that he did as far as cutting the budget in the last term,” he says, adding, “I haven’t done any research in that area.”

Myers is right that Straus isn’t being targeted solely because he’s Jewish. Rather, his religion is part of a constellation of characteristics that puts him outside the Tea Party fold. “There are two elements to the attack on Straus,” says Harvey Kronberg, whose influential political newsletter Quorum Report first published some of the anti-Straus emails. “One is that he’s not a real fiscal conservative, and they really have to jump through some hoops to get to that conclusion. The other is that he’s not a true social conservative, and the subtext of that is that he’s Jewish.”

As Kronberg points out, at least some of Straus’ foes have been fairly deliberate in injecting religion into the race. Morrison, whose political newsletter attacked Straus’ rabbi, used to be a fairly obscure figure. Now, says Kronberg, he’s found surprising resources for his anti-Straus campaign, giving him a far larger reach.

Recently, Morrison launched a direct-mail campaign, sending tens of thousands of postcards to Republican primary voters in districts with representatives who are leaning toward Straus. The postcards referred to the Republicans who originally made Straus speaker as members of a “traitorous cabal.” They urged recipients to contact their house members, whose phone numbers and email addresses were included. Such a large-scale campaign, segmented by legislative district, is expensive, and, says Kronberg, “Morrison is not a particularly wealthy guy.”

The campaign, says Kronberg, “suggests political consultants. It tells me that there is money and organization off camera that takes this to a level beyond just some outraged marginal character.” The Tea Party may have genuine grassroots passion, but it also has professional organization. The whisper campaign about Straus’ religion can’t be dismissed as merely an embarrassing misunderstanding. It was strategy. And on the off chance that it works, we’ll surely see it again.