- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 17, 2015

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) - Republican U.S. Sen. John Thune has hired Rep. Kristi Noem’s 2010 campaign manager to lead his likely effort to seek a third Senate term in 2016.

Former Thune staffer and political veteran Joshua Shields started as campaign manager on Monday for Thune’s unofficial Senate bid. He said it’s unclear when Thune, who is the third-ranking Senate Republican, will announce his formal candidacy.

“I couldn’t be more pleased to have Joshua back on my team to manage the re-election campaign,” Thune said in a statement. “Joshua knows South Dakota, he knows how to organize and he knows how to win.”

Shields’ main political operative cred comes from navigating Noem’s successful campaign to unseat Democratic former-Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin in 2010. He also worked on Thune’s 2002 and 2004 campaigns, and left a government relations position at Black Hills Corp. to take the campaign manager job for the upcoming cycle.

“This is an opportunity to come back and run the campaign, run the operation that I worked on right out of college,” Shields said. “It (is) a pretty amazing opportunity.”

Thune has campaigned from a much stronger position since the 2010 election cycle, when he ran unopposed for a second term. Shields anticipates Thune will have more than $10 million on hand by the end of this fundraising quarter, and he has steadily risen among the ranks of national Republicans. The GOP takeover of the Senate after the 2014 elections installed Thune as chairman of the chamber’s powerful Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee.

Kyle Kondik, managing editor at Sabato’s Crystal Ball, said the move dampens “longshot” expectations that Thune would run for president in 2016. South Dakota’s senior U.S. senator has said he’s keeping his options open but isn’t actively exploring a run.

“I think it’s fair to say that Thune’s running for re-election, and as of this point he seems to be in excellent shape to win re-election,” Kondik said.

South Dakota Democratic Party Chairwoman Ann Tornberg said she’s not aware of any candidates who are interested in running against Thune.

“You obviously plan for an opponent,” Shields said. “You plan for a tough race, and if that doesn’t bear out then that’s great.”

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