If Scott Walker wins Wisconsin’s recall election, labor will suffer a self-inflicted wound

If Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker loses the election to recall him from office Tuesday, the political press will declare the arrival of Big Labor's comeback. If Walker wins, it will be seen as yet another sign of labor's demise.

The election to recall the Republican governor, sparked by Walker's successful 2011 effort to end collective bargaining for public employees, has drawn participation from many different groups, including the tea party. But unions, which have long been fighting stories of their demise, have much of what's left of their reputation as powerful political organizers riding on the race.

Union membership in 2011 fell to a record low for the second straight year, according to the Department of Labor, but that's not the only avenue in which unions have been struggling.

Bill Schneider, a a senior fellow and resident scholar at centrist think tank Third Way, told Yahoo News that labor has lately experienced "tougher times winning" electoral races in which they've inserted themselves. This includes labor's unsuccessful attempt to take down Sen. Blanche Lincoln in the 2010 Arkansas Democratic primary.

Labor activists deny any suggestion that a downward trend is forming.

"This is one election," Chris Fleming, the media director for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, told Yahoo News of the recall, adding that the left was heavily outspent in this race. "We cannot compete with the Koch brothers and all of Walker's millionaire and billionaire megalomaniac friends who want to take control of the government."

Walker personally raised about $21 million, significantly more than the $3 million raised by Democratic challenger Tom Barrett, the mayor of Milwaukee. And Walker additionally benefited from major spending by outside tea party groups and super PACs.

Fleming said regardless of Tuesday's outcome, the effort to recall Walker has "energized" union supporters "like never before" and turned their message about protecting working class families into a "mainstream movement."

"Anyone who says the enthusiasm is low needs to come to the state just for a day," Fleming said, adding that labor supporters knocked on half a million doors in 48 hours ahead of the recall, and have set up 31 field offices and 60 staging locations, more than he's seen for a presidential campaign.

But polls show labor losing the enthusiasm battle in the face of tea party energy and mobilization on the right.

"The reason [Democratic challenger Tom Barrett] continues to trail overall is that Republicans are more excited about voting in Tuesday's election than Democrats are," the Democratic-leaning firm Public Policy Polling wrote in its analysis of a new poll on the race released Monday.

Democrats downplayed the fact that President Obama chose not to make a campaign appearance for Barrett, but Schneider notes that many party officials have long been reluctant to attach themselves to this race.

"They had doubts at the beginning ... what exactly was behind that, I don't know," Schneider said. "I think Democrats were hesitant."

Schneider said the Wisconsin recall is connected to the 2012 presidential race because it is "a test run for a strategy that Obama may be tempted to follow."

Schneider notes that if Republicans are successful in Wisconsin in November in the presidential election as well as in downballot races, labor may have itself to blame.

"Conservative are riled up and that's because liberals riled up their base," he said. "And now, [Republicans] are likely to stay angry right through November."

Additionally, Schneider said the recall has significantly "toned up" the Republican ground game in the state.

Observers say Republicans across the country are likely to try to piggyback off of Walker's success if he wins and take a stronger stand against unions.