Salena Zito

For weeks the national media focused on union protests in Wisconsin.

Aging hippies trashed the state capital, union members were bused in from across the country in color-coded T-shirts, and Democratic state senators hid in an Illinois motel.

Each little drama was an organized response to Republican Governor Scott Walker’s budget-repair bill that negated labor’s influence with state employees.

You could not turn to any cable or network newscast without seeing Walker, or see other states’ Republican governors and legislators copying him.

Then, through a legislative maneuver, Walker outfoxed the Democrats and passed his budget bill.

The TV crews’ klieg lights went out. The political circus packed up. Our attention turned to Japan and Libya.

Perhaps we all looked away too quickly.

The story that no one talks about, that has the biggest impact on the 2012 election, is slowly brewing – with Republicans barely paying attention.

The two sides in Wisconsin did not drop their weapons. They just settled into high-stakes trench warfare.

Wisconsin has what can only be described as a screwy recall law; get enough signatures on a petition, and you can trigger new elections.

Democrats hope to use this law to undo the statehouse majority.

Recall elections possibly can begin as early as June for 16 Wisconsin senators who are being targeted – eight Republicans for their votes in favor of the law that ends most collective bargaining powers for public-employee unions, and eight Democrats for running and hiding in Illinois in what turned out to be a failed attempt to stop the GOP from voting on the measure.

When Republicans won big in 2010, Wisconsin was the best example of that midterm wave and the most significant warning to President Obama’s re-election campaign: Three-term U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wisc., went down, and the GOP took the governor’s mansion, two more congressional seats, and state legislative majorities.

All in a state that Al Gore, John Kerry and Barack Obama won as the Democrats’ presidential candidates.

While Wisconsin’s story fell off the front page, the left – fueled by unions, the Democratic Governors Association, and MoveOn.org – have begun a multimillion-dollar TV campaign to support the audacious recall effort.

The only Republican strategy- and money-machine that really seems to understand the potential effect is the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC), headed by former national GOP chairman Ed Gillespie. The RSLC is so worried that it is making an unusual mid-cycle investment of money that it could have used in 2012.

Unions and the left are far outspending pro-business interests and the right on recall ads.

Democrats are wise to see more is at stake than a single state’s senate majority and a new political map that could unseat two freshmen Republican congressmen. They know this is the first battle of 2012 – their version of 2010’s surprise election of Scott Brown, R-Mass., who won a blue-state U.S. Senate seat formerly held by Democrat Ted Kennedy.

Republicans won in Massachusetts because conservatives around the country poured money into Brown's campaign; he raised a million bucks a day and couldn't spend it all.

His opponent, Democrat Margaret Coakley, was strapped and forced to beg money from Washington lobbyists in the last 10 days of the race, which Brown quickly used in a commercial against her.

Massachusetts Democrats got ambushed. Will Republicans let that happen to them in Wisconsin?

Make no mistake, this will have a chilling effect on every other state dealing with public-employee collective bargaining or pensions in the next two years – which is just about all of them.

If Walker and other governors cannot tame public pensions and union contracts, you will see tax hikes across the country enacted under freshmen GOP governors in the next few years. It is simple math.

If Republicans don't engage with real cash in Wisconsin, they could lose the state senate in advance of redistricting this summer, embolden unions, and scare hell out of Republicans in statehouses everywhere.

Walker may have won on policy – yet Republicans could face massive losses nationally if they don’t win those state recalls.

Just because the Democrats came back from Illinois doesn’t mean the left surrendered.


Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.