When Scott Walker was sworn in as Wisconsin governor in January 2011, virtually no one outside of the Badger State knew much about him except that he was part of a nationwide Republican sweep of the 2010 elections that was seen largely as a rebuke of President Obama. That changed quickly.

Barely a month in office, Walker surprised even those who knew him when he announced that he intended to curb the collective bargaining rights of most of the state's public employee unions, igniting a national furor with his progressive, blue-collar state at Ground Zero. Walker said that, for budgetary reasons, he was going to strip the unions' authority to negotiate contracts, bar them from collecting dues directly from workers' paychecks and require workers to vote frequently to reaffirm that they wanted the unions to remain.

Public reaction was fierce and immediate. Thousands of angry residents turned out by Democrats and the unions descended on the Capitol in a massive Valentine's Day protest that the nation would watch unfold over several weeks. As many as 100,000 people lined the streets around the Capitol, some of them camping inside the Capitol and refusing to move until Walker reversed course. Adding to the mayhem, 14 Democratic lawmakers fled Madison for Illinois, hoping their absence would prevent a vote on the bill. It didn't. Republicans passed it anyway.

So bitter was the nationally televised feud that both Walker and lawmakers on both sides of the issue were forced into recall elections.

The recall election may have been the best thing to ever happen to Walker's political career. Top Republican leaders and donors around the country who watched Walker successfully battle the unions came to his rescue, helping him raise a state-record $30 million for race, which Walker won by an even larger margin than he had in 2010. Republican circles were soon abuzz with speculation that Walker could be a contender for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination. Invitations to speak to conservative groups in other states began pouring in.

Within a matter of weeks, the governor of Wisconsin was no longer unknown.

"He gained a lot of political capital," said state Rep. Andre Jacque, a northeastern Republican elected in 2010 with Walker. "There was an election and it was something that empowered him to continue in that direction. It put him in the spotlight not only in the state but nationally."