On a sunny fall Friday, Tobias Schlingensiepen trotted through North Topeka, pounding pavement in an effort to close the deal in what is likely to be a tight race in the 18th Kansas Senate district.


The Topeka minister and Democratic candidate dodged piles of leaves strewn throughout the street, sidestepped patios filled with Halloween decorations and even at one point had a black cat slide around him.


He will hope that isn’t a bad omen as he aims to reach a shrinking pool of undecided voters.


Some conversations were long, like the one Schlingensiepen had with Sharon Gager, an elderly resident who was having her house painted to comply with city ordinances.


Gager reported that she had already voted.


"I’m a straight Democrat," she said.


But she needed help getting the house work completed in time to avoid a $400-per-day fine from the city, noting she could not climb a 32-foot ladder to reach the upper story.


That led to Schlingensiepen connecting her with a program at his church, which helps elderly residents with needed home repairs.


Other moments were shorter, like at a house where Schlingensiepen was unable to enter before being met by a pack of barking dogs.


"We’ll mark that as inaccessible," Schlingensiepen cracked to a friend who was in charge of manning the digital app, which helped candidates know which houses to target while campaigning.


But all encounters had something in common: they took place from 6 feet away.


When Schlingensiepen approaches a house he steps back, pulls up his mask and ensures the people whose vote he is trying to win over are comfortable with his presence.


The final weekend of campaigning is now marked by socially distant door knocking, canceled candidate appearance and a last-ditch effort to reach the dwindling number of voters who have yet to cast their ballot.


Some candidates have sharply limited the amount of in-person campaigning they have done, worrying about the risk the pandemic poses to those who might soon be constituents.


Others are going full steam ahead by interacting with voters in-person, with some candidates electing to be more lax on mask-wearing and social distancing.


Many politicians, like Schlingensiepen, find themselves somewhere in between.


To knock or not to knock? That is the question


In a normal campaign season, Brenda Dietrich would have been out and about at local events throughout the 20th Kansas Senate District, such as Eskridge’s fall festival.


The festival has occurred on the last Saturday in October for 96 years and brings residents and candidates alike out for a car show, beer garden and parade down Main St.


That is, until the organizers of the event called off the proceedings less than 24 hours beforehand, citing a spike of COVID-19 cases in Wabaunsee County.


And unlike Schlingensiepen, Dietrich is not going door-to-door with the intent of talking with residents, instead merely leaving literature about who she is and why she is running.


That call, she said, was made in consultation with Shawnee County health officials.


"That was a decision we made early on," Dietrich, a Republican, said. "It would not help much if folks see you there, even with gloves and a mask. It makes them uncomfortable."


Lindsey Constance agrees.


Constance, a Johnson County Democrat running in Kansas Senate District 10, said that she has not found that making phone calls to voters or reaching them virtually has been a step down.


Much like Dietrich, Constance has left fliers for voters with her cellphone that lets them contact her at their convenience.


"They can connect with me anytime as opposed to a traditional door knock or canvas where they get to talk to me if I happen to show up on their doorstep the one time I make it through on a Tuesday evening, if they’re at home," she said. "This way I feel like I am more accessible."


But some believe that tight races could hinge on the smallest of differences between candidates – including whether a candidate has gone out to meet with voters face-to-face.


Stephanie Sharp, a former state legislator turned political consultant, is one of those who believes that in-person door knocking, if done safely, is the way to go.


Residents are more likely to be at home due to the pandemic, she said, and are open to conversations simply because they want a break from their housemates.


Sharp called those who "make a moral superiority argument" for limiting in-person campaigning "short sighted."


"I think it is foolish to do all that work walking doors and not be talking to voters," she said, arguing it can easily be done safely.


But Constance is balancing a hectic schedule. A teacher in the Shawnee Mission School District and a parent of two, Constance has been wearing numerous hats throughout the campaign.


She maintains, however, that her busy schedule makes her more relatable to voters.


At one point she sewed a wayward button back onto her child’s Halloween costume – while talking with a voter on the phone.


"That’s the way democracy is supposed to work," she said. "It is supposed to be representative of people."


Candidates see virus threat up close


Some candidates know the threat of the virus firsthand.


Willie Dove, a Bonner Springs Republican running in Kansas Senate District 3, contracted COVID-19 in September, forcing him off the campaign trail.


He said the virus left him unable to get out of his chair due to fatigue and it meant Dove had to take precautions to protect his mother-in-law, who lives with the family.


When he resumed campaign activities earlier this month, Dove said "nothing much has changed."


"Am I more cautious than before? Absolutely," he said. "I shook some hands before and I don’t shake any hands now."


But he defended the rights of individuals not to wear a mask, although her underscored the virus is "serious."


Photos shared by Dove’s campaign show the candidate unmasked at some events, notably a meeting with GOP U.S. Senate candidate Roger Marshall earlier this week.


Dove did note that he wears a mask when he is door knocking.


"There are people that are wearing masks and there are people that are not wearing masks and I respect them both," he said.


Marshall himself has drawn fire from his opponent, Democratic state Sen. Barbara Bollier, for holding events where individuals are not wearing masks.


Marshall, himself an OB-GYN, has said Kansans should follow the guidance of public health officials.


"I think everyone should respect the virus," Marshall said at the bus tour stop in Topeka. "I think everybody should wear a mask when they can, keep the physical distance, wash their hands, all those types of things, as well."


But photos from events the candidate has held throughout the past week appear to show him meeting with voters without wearing a mask, although some attendees appear to have chosen to wear facial coverings.


Bollier remained critical of the decision.


"It is shameful," she said after a campaign stop Wednesday in Topeka. Attendees at that event remained socially distant and wore masks.


Pandemic forces creativity from candidates


Candidates in areas with mask mandates and limits on mass gatherings have had to get creative.


Craig Bowser is a Republican in Kansas Senate District 22, which includes the college town of Manhattan, where there are numerous restrictions in place to mitigate the virus’ spread.


Bowser was forced to take campaigning all virtual during his primary campaign in the spring, he said.


Five fundraisers were canceled at the time and only one was rescheduled in the fall, potentially crimping his war chest in the final days of the campaign.


And while things have largely resumed in-person, he noted a heavy emphasis on the digital side of things remained.


"I’ve lost track of the number of Zoom calls I’ve done," he said.


And even when socially distant events are held, the recent cold snap made them more sparsely attended.


At an outdoor event last Sunday with a series of Democratic candidates up and down the ballot, the temperature caused the sound system to briefly stop working.


"We froze our butts off," Schlingensiepen said of campaigning last week.


Fewer voters than usual to reach


Candidates are also grappling with another problem: many voters have already cast their ballots.


"All but one person we spoke to last weekend had already voted," Dietrich said.


That is borne out in data. According to figures from the Secretary of State’s office, roughly one-third of all registered voters in the state have already voted. That figure is even higher in some areas, including Douglas and Johnson counties.


And while candidates are using more digital and direct mail advertising than ever, that still might be wasted on those who have already turned out.


But the state is projecting that 70% of all registered voters will turn out, with the potential for that number to climb even higher.


Constance, the Democrat in Johnson County, predicted that 90 percent of those able to vote in her district will turn out.


That means there are no shortage of voters left to win over, whether in person or not. And while the pandemic has complicated those efforts, candidates say they will keep pushing until the bitter end.


"I would say it has hurt our ability to get out the message," Bowser said. "We’re doing the best we can. It is such an unusual year – nothing is as it should be."