Democrats are waking up to the startling reality that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) could, despite $40 million in Democratic Party and organized labor money, beat back the recall effort. What then?

Plainly, the energy and enthusiasm a victory would bring to Wisconsin Republicans would raise hopes that Mitt Romney could win the state. It’s not so far-fetched. George W. Bush lost Wisconsin in 2000 to Al Gore 47.83 percent to 47.61 percent (a margin of 5708 votes). In 2004 Bush lost the state to Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) 49.7 percent to 49.3 percent (a margin of 11, 384 votes). Since President Obama’s victory there in 2008, Walker and Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) won, while the Republicans picked up two House seats. So the state is winnable.

If Wisconsin comes into play, you would think Rep. Paul Ryan’s prospects for the VP slot brighten. He’s already on most everyone’s short list. He has developed a good rapport with Romney, shares just about every policy position with the presidential nominee and adds some sell for the ticket in suburban areas. If he could help push Romney over the top in Wisconsin, that would be one more plus for him. (Choosing Ryan would then be seen as a sign of confidence that Romney thinks he needs no help from a home state VP in places like Ohio and Virginia.)

Walker’s political survival would also put the subject of employee unions front and center in both the presidential race and just about every other contest (down to state and local elections) in the country. If Walker could take on the massive structural debt in his state by attacking labor costs, other candidates will be pressed to explain their own views. Since over 40 % of state and local government spending is attributable to compensation (salary and benefits), it is virtually impossible to attack state spending without addressing public employee costs. (Moreover, this figure may understate the true cost of public-employee unions, which may impose additional costs through staffing requirements, work rules, and prohibitions on contracting).

In this debate, Democrats are generally at a disadvantage trying to defend public-employee bargaining privileges and compensation. In March the Bureau of Labor Statistics came out with a report showing that as of December, 2011 private employers spent an average of $28.57 per hour in total employee compensation. State and local governments spent an average of $40.90 dollars per hour. Gulp. Try defending that to voters being asked to swallow tax hikes or cuts in services.

All of this threatens to put Big Labor back on its heels. If Walker wins, unions will be under the gun to explain why ten of millions in workers’ dues and contributions were spent on this lark.

More important, a energized effort around the country to pare back collective bargaining privileges for state and local workers and rein in their benefits would spell huge trouble for unions. The workforce as a whole in 2011 was 11.8 percent unionized. But in the public sector that figure was 37 percent compared to 6.9 percent in the private sector. Without public-sector employees, Big Labor would become a shadow of its former self, deprived of vast sums of money used to back its preferred candidates and push its agenda at all levels of government.

You can see why Democrats and organized labor bosses may have woken up in a cold sweat after Tuesday’s returns. They have a huge amount to lose in Wisconsin and beyond.