The presidential contest hogs all the headlines even when nothing is happening. But another, possibly more important, battle is being waged at the moment and with just as much ferocity: Hanging in the balance on Nov. 2 is control of the Senate.

This was supposed to be a year in which the question was how many seats the GOP would pick up, with predictions as high as six. Democrats have a lot of territory to defend: Five of them are retiring in the South, where support of Bush is strong. Only three Republicans are retiring, but two are in strongly conservative states. Luckily for the Democrats, though, the GOP has fielded some weak, even strange, candidates, allowing Dems some room to breathe — and even to entertain winning control of the Senate. Here’s a race-by-race breakdown.

The five retiring Democrats:

Georgia: This seat will definitely go to Republican Johnny Isakson, but he will replace Zell Miller, so it’s an almost even exchange.

Louisiana: Louisiana believes politics should be kept out of politics, so candidates do not run with party affiliation until a December run-off between the top two finishers. The lone Republican candidate is currently picking up well under 50 percent of the vote, and this state has never elected a Republican senator. The projected run-off race is close, but history predicts it will go Democratic.

North Carolina: The Democrats are trying to keep Edwards’ seat in Edwards’ party, which will be tough considering that most North Carolinians don’t like Edwards. Former Clinton chief-of-staff Erskine Bowles faces Richard Burr in a race too close to call.

South Carolina: This should go to Republican Jim DeMint, although the race is tightening, in part because one of his staffers sent an e-mail calling his opponent, Inez Tenenbaum, a “dike” [sic]. Still, the GOP likely gains another seat.

Florida: Rumor has it that Bush forced his HUD Secretary, Mel Martinez, to run for this seat in order to increase Latino turnout on Nov. 2. The vicious Republican primary, which had a lot of accusations that the other man had hired homosexuals, probably helped Democratic candidate Betty Castor. This one is a dead heat along party lines: Either it will go Kerry/Castor or Bush/Martinez.

The three retiring Republicans:

Illinois: Barack Obama is already sprucing up his new office. A sex scandal took down his first Republican opponent; Alan Keyes being Alan Keyes takes care of the second. Need more proof? The GOP’s newest mailer mentions every candidate running in Illinois except for Keyes, and Obama is actually campaigning in other states for other Democratic candidates.

Oklahoma: A Democratic senator from Oklahoma? Quite possibly, when Republican candidate Tom Coburn is an obstetrician who claims abortion should be a capital crime and that rampant lesbianism is destroying our junior high schools. He also called himself “good” and his opponent Brad Carson “evil” — right before a former patient sued him for allegedly forcibly sterilizing her. If Coburn wins, expect to hear a lot from him; he will probably become the most prominent voice of extreme social conservatism. (Sample quote: The “gay agenda is the greatest threat to our freedom today.” Dems will gain another seat if Coburn sticks his foot so far in his mouth he chokes to death. Otherwise, a toss-up.

Colorado: What do Colorado voters think when they hear the candidates’ names? Ken Salazar (D): “attorney general”. Pete Coors (R): “beer”. Coors is trying to reframe the election as “trial lawyer versus businessman,” but so far, it’s still law and order against keg stands, as Salazar leads by a couple of points. Dems get this seat if Salazar and his brother, running for the House, manage to keep the Hispanic vote fired up.

The surprise races:

Alaska: The Republican incumbent, Lisa Murkowski, was appointed by the unpopular governor. Her main qualification is that she is his daughter; voters are not impressed. Add the fact that her Democratic rival is the popular former governor, Tony Knowles, and this seat should go Democratic.

South Dakota: The GOP, in an unprecedented move, decided to challenge the leader of the Democratic party, Tom Daschle. John Thune (R) lost to S.D.’s other senator by only 527 votes in 2002, and the race is in a dead heat, with both parties pouring money into the state. This is the one to watch on Election Day.

Kentucky: This is by far the most bizarre race to track. After a sex scandal knocked off the primary Democratic candidate, everything seemed locked up for the GOP: Jim Bunning is both an incumbent and a Hall of Fame baseball player. Then he committed a series of inexplicable gaffes. At the last minute, he broke the agreement to debate in Kentucky, claiming he had to stay in Washington, D.C. for important votes (none were scheduled the following day). Instead he linked up via satellite and was clearly using a TelePrompTer. Additionally, he said that his Democratic rival looked like one of Saddam Hussein’s sons, and as he apologized for it, he accused his opponent of assaulting his wife. Bunning is now battling rumors about his mental health. Of the people who know the Democratic candidate’s name (Daniel Mongiardo), he leads 56 percent to 38 percent. Unfortunately, no one knows who he is, so he’s down by a few points. But two major Kentucky newspapers just endorsed him and this race will go down to the wire.

In sum: Right now, the Senate has 51 Republicans, so if they lose two seats, the Democrats take over. Conceding Illinois to the Democrats and Georgia to the Republicans, five Democratic and four Republican seats are up for grabs. All of these races are too close to call, but I’ll hazard that Democrats will win Alaska and Louisiana, and that Republicans will win South Carolina, leaving the Senate score at 47-47, with six seats remaining. Should they break evenly, the Senate ends up 50-50, and the tie is broken by the new vice president. In other words, he who wins the White House wins the Senate, which means whoever wins Florida wins both. Thank God we fixed all the election problems there–

Paul Kalanithi is a second-year student at the School of Medicine.