‘Blue’ votes may have been Broward Sheriff Lamberti’s undoing

“What the hell happened?”

Less than 24 hours after Broward Sheriff Al Lamberti lost his bid for reelection, he appeared Wednesday on the Big 105.9’s Paul and Young Ron Show, struggling to answer the host’s question.

Going into Tuesday, Lamberti seemed to have the pieces required for a win over challenger Scott Israel, despite being a Republican in a predominantly Democratic county: endorsements, money, high visibility and experience from having pulled off a win over the same opponent in 2008.

“I thought Lamberti was probably more vulnerable in 2008 than this cycle,” said Jim Kane, a longtime Broward pollster.

The results said otherwise, with Democrat Israel defeating Lamberti, one of the most visible Republicans in Broward, by about 45,000 votes.

Israel, 56, a longtime Fort Lauderdale officer and former North Bay Village police chief, had been working part time in private security consulting the last few years. He will take over the helm of the Broward Sheriff’s Office in January.

“I always said the job for me was the easy part,’’ Lamberti told the radio hosts. “It was the politics that was the difficult part.”

Indeed, an analysis of the results Wednesday indicate it was exactly the politics of the campaign that tripped up Lamberti.

The Republican refused to switch parties after he was first appointed to the position in 2007 despite Broward’s long history of voting blue straight down the ticket.

On the other hand, Israel changed his party affiliation from Republican to Democrat before he challenged Lamberti in 2008 for the job. Israel lost that race by just 15,000 votes. Back then, Lamberti argued to residents that a vote for him would bring stability to the agency which was rocked when former Sheriff Ken Jenne went to prison on charges of fraud and tax evasion.

Lamberti, with the help of a highly visible campaign, persuaded voters that the BSO needed consistency, not change for the sake of politics.

And it helped that, in 2008, about 50,000 voters, probably mostly Democrats, left their ballot blank for sheriff.

This year, Democratic leaders sent out a strong message: Vote the party line all the way down the ballot — and don’t skip any races.

The difference, according to Broward GOP Chairman Richard DeNapoli, was about 21,000 more votes cast in the sheriff’s race this go-round.

“Democrats definitely got out there, and all those cards had Scott Israel on them,” DeNapoli said. “That had some impact on it.”

During Lamberti’s tenure, the sheriff took on Broward’s rampant pill mills and pushed to have lawmakers make attacking the homeless a hate crime.

But he also made some enemies.

Among them: Ron Gunzburger, son of Broward County Commissioner Sue Gunzburger. In 2010, Lamberti launched a corruption investigation into decades-old allegations against her that ended with no evidence found.

But Ron Gunzburger , a veteran of Broward political campaigns , volunteered to help Israel defeat the man who had attacked his mother.

“I wanted to defend her honor,’’ Gunzburger said Wednesday.

In the last few days before the election, both campaigns took a dark turn, with Israel supporters launching ads that pointed out how some top BSO employees had ties to Ponzi schemer Scott Rothstein. Lamberti supporters fired back with ads emphasizing internal affairs investigations about Israel done during his time with Fort Lauderdale police.

Although Lamberti had a long list of endorsements, including those of automobile magnate Mike Maroone and the Broward County Police Benevolent Association, Israel had a few key backers .

Among them, Pembroke Pines Commissioner Angelo Castillo, whose constituents include the strong voting bloc at Century Village, and Broward County Commissioners Barbara Sharief and Sue Gunzburger.

That, combined with the right mix of attack ads and robocalls to raise doubts, were enough to make this the first time voters had removed a sheriff since they kicked out another Broward Republican — controversial lawman Nick Navarro, who lost the 1992 GOP primary.

Kane, the Broward pollster, said Navarro lost that election because he started to assume he would win. Lamberti’s campaign this time around also lacked urgency, he said. “He almost took it for granted,’’ Kane said. “I didn’t get the sense of a ground game.”

Miami Herald staff writer Amy Sherman contributed to this report.