I’ve said it before but it bears repeating: I’ll never understand how beating Mitch McConnell became an urgent conservative priority while beating Grahamnesty has been stuck at the “meh” level for years. Every time I post one of those “McCain thinking of running again in 2016” stories, 200 commenters pop up and shout “DUNZO” — and every time, I think of Graham up 35+ points in his own primary in a very conservative state against a field of nearly unknown challengers. Why wouldn’t Maverick take another shot at the Senate?

Pro-amnesty, ultra-hawkish, capable of jaw-dropping statements about free speech — and cruising to another six-year term. This is why I need powdered alcohol.

Graham’s deft maneuvering shows why he’s become the dominant political figure in this deeply red state and is skating to another six years even as he’s angered the base on immigration and other hot-button issues. Far from pandering to the party’s tea party wing in order to get reelected, he’s challenging it head-on: Graham warns that the GOP is caught in a “death spiral” with minorities, says it needs to get real about climate change and defends his move to open debate on gun control legislation after a school massacre…

“You know who wants 30 pure Republicans? Harry Reid,” Graham said, referring to the oft-quoted line from his former South Carolina colleague, Jim DeMint, that the party would be better served with 30 rock-ribbed conservatives than 60 who aren’t. “What I want is a party that can grow. … What’s my big sin: 1-in-10 [votes defecting from the party line]? If we’re going to build the party around universal agreement, we become a club.”…

No matter the venue, Graham, unprompted, brings up his support of Obama’s nominations of Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court. Senators, he argued, should weigh only nominees’ qualifications, not their ideological bent. He warns flatly that wealthier taxpayers should give up some of their Medicare benefits and workers should be prepared to see their retirement age increased. And he openly floats the idea of a grand bargain deal to rein in deficits, which could very well increase taxes and trigger a revolt on the right…

Graham, in the interview, was unapologetic about his unsuccessful attempt to cut a deal with Democrats on controlling climate change. Humans, he said, “to some extent, absolutely” are contributing to global warming and the GOP needs a rational environmental policy, with a heavy emphasis on nuclear power.

How’s he doing it, winning big in a red state despite flouting conservative expectations on big-ticket issues? Simple, says Politico: Through careful planning and superb organizational ability. He’s raised a ton of money and donated plenty of it, along with lots of political favors, to prominent South Carolina Republicans who might threaten him. He’s made nice with tea-party heroes like Tim Scott and Trey Gowdy and has made sure to have representatives at every moderately large political event in the state, even ones that are hostile to him. He’s also paid close attention to local issues on the (wise) assumption that solving day-to-day problems for constituents back home will dampen any ideological brushfires against him. Essentially, he’s built up so much political capital through smart retail politicking that even people in SC who dislike him are hesitant to try to knock him off with a primary challenge. And if you don’t care about this, you should: If Graham does end up winning reelection in a state like this while keeping tea-party pandering to a minimum, he’ll be a new hero to establishment Republicans. Every centrist GOP incumbent going forward will copy his battle plan. The Graham strategy could mean far fewer successful primaries in the future, which means less tea-party influence over the GOP caucus.

That reminds me, though: Have any Republican incumbents been knocked off over the past five years despite preparing diligently for a serious challenge from the right? The two most prominent senators to be primaried were Bob Bennett and Dick Lugar, but Bennett was the very first major Republican to be unseated in the tea-party era; he likely never saw it coming until it was too late. Lugar should have seen it coming but I remember reading stories during the Indiana primary campaign two years ago about how he didn’t take the threat seriously. Indiana had elected him for more than 30 years; he thought they’d never turn on him and oust him, whether he campaigned hard or not. Like Bennett, he waited too long and paid the price. My question is, has anyone been upset despite getting ready years in advance for a conservative challenge? That’s what Graham did; it’s also what Orrin Hatch did after he watched Bennett get beaten. Pat Roberts in Kansas also started preparing early, as of course did McConnell. All of those guys either won their primary or are ahead now. Needless to say, no GOP incumbent will take a tea-party challenge lightly for years to come, which is a nice testament to the movement’s strength but also a harbinger of many more losses for insurgent candidates in the future.

The only chance to stop Graham is to deny him 51 percent in the upcoming primary and then hope that whoever finishes second can beat him in the runoff, a la Ted Cruz beating David Dewhurst. Cruz is an unusual talent, though, who become a national conservative cause celebre; none of Graham’s challengers fit that bill. Don’t get your hopes up. Exit question: McCain will also follow the Graham strategy if he runs in 2016, but is he too old to pull it off? The most striking thing about Politico’s description of Graham’s operation is how much energy it seems to require. He’s been running for reelection for four years already and has had to play endless cards to get to the position he’s in. I don’t know if Maverick, who’ll turn 80 a few months before election day 2016, wants to go through all of that.