I want to steer you all to a couple pieces out today: Jamelle Bouie in defense of political parties, and Henry Farrell on money flows and influence within the Republican Party. See also Henry's earlier post on the same subject.
I wrote a longish, fairly technical piece on campaign financing late last week, which I really hope specialists on money in politics (and/or parties) will look at. The gist of it is that it's more complicated than it seems to figure out whether money should properly be counted as coming from parties, interest groups, or unaffiliated individuals. Out of that, however, I'll say that if the GOP has evolved a work-around because campaign finance laws prohibit them from using formal party organizations (such as the RNC) for certain types of coordination, and because the current RNC is too dysfunctional, then I don't think that the outcome will necessarily be weaker parties. Instead, it might just be stronger parties that lean more on informal networks than on formal structures.
I think the discussion should be focused, then, on two questions. How influential are the parties are compared to their competitors, and who within the parties has the most influence. Unfortunately, these questions get complicated very quickly when one accepts that a lot of players -- interest groups, candidates -- have an ambiguous relationship with the party, properly understood. Interest groups can be both independent actors and party members. So can candidates, or at least their candidacies. That is, party networks can infiltrate both interest groups and candidacies so thoroughly that they act as if they are party components, not rivals. So parties can weaken as politicians get stronger if those pols are able to operate as rivals to party, but parties can also gain strength from strong, party-aligned candidacies.
Even in those circumstances, however, there's still the question of which party components have influence. And here, I think Henry Farrell is right to look at how money flows, and the regulatory and technological (or organizational) changes that affect them. My sense of it is that loosing regulation through Citizens United and other judicial and FEC decisions is probably relatively less important: in my view, these decisions may change how money is collected and spent (which might matter!), but it probably doesn't really change how much truly independent interest groups will spend. They've always had loopholes large enough that they could spend what they wanted. On the other hand, the kinds of mobilization of very large networks of small (and smallish) donors through cable network and activist web site agitation strikes me as really different from pre-2004 campaign cycles, and I do think it's meaningful that it has spread from presidential candidates to Senate and even House contests. If I'm right and that money is basically partisan money, then it's likely to tie candidates even closer to their parties.
One of the big questions -- and we don't know the answer -- is what percentage of all money spent in Congressional campaigns is truly party money; how much is from independent interest groups (that is, groups not aligned with either party); and how much is personal, generated by individual candidates from sources that are not particularly tied to party networks. My guess is that in Congressional elections the third category peaked 30-50 years ago and has been declining ever since, but that's just a guess.
I do think that Henry's questions about coordination are important, but I don't think that he has it quite right. All types of parties are going to be interested in coordination, but different types of parties, with different regulation regimes, different components, different institutions, different....hmmm...strength, in the sense of how closely various components are tied to the party, are going to be able to coordinate more or less efficiently. (Even if individual actors within the party network claim to have little interest in coordination, the logic of elections, beginning with the need to agree on nominees, push everyone in that direction, at least if they want to be influential players). Stability matters too: rapid changes, whether or the rules of the road or in electioneering technology, probably make coordination a lot harder.
That's not to say that all forms of coordination yield the same outcomes. Using Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity (or using Kos) as a means of coordination for large numbers of small and smallish donors can impose all sorts of constraints on the party, and it's well worth paying attention to what those might be.