AUSTIN, Texas — Republican megadonor Bob Perry never cared for the spotlight. But writing big checks and financing the Swift Boat Veterans campaign against Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry, one of the most famous television ads ever in a presidential campaign, made the Texas millionaire famous nonetheless.
A wealthy Houston homebuilder who shunned publicity while generously bankrolling GOP candidates and becoming a force in a new era of lavish spending in American politics, Mr. Perry died Saturday night, said former Texas state representative Neal Jones, a close family friend.
Jones did not offer further details.
Mr. Perry, 80, was a fixture of GOP fund-raising in Texas and nationally beginning with former president George W. Bush’s Texas gubernatorial races in the mid-1990s.
Mr. Perry’s largesse included giving $4.4 million in 2004 to the Swift Boat campaign that sought to discredit Kerry’s service in Vietnam, for which the Massachusetts Democrat received the Silver Star and four other medals.
Mr. Perry spent prolifically on politics, but did so from a distance. He rarely gave interviews and skipped fancy fund-raisers. He was a mystery to even many of those he supported.
Yet Mr. Perry could not avoid attention following his financing of the Swift Boat ads. Some Democrats blamed Kerry’s slow response to the criticism for sinking his candidacy.
Mr. Perry donated money to help start the veterans group at the urging of his friend John O’Neill, a Houston attorney who co-wrote ‘‘Unfit for Command,’’ a book that questions Kerry’s military service.
Bill Miller, an Austin lobbyist whom Mr. Perry hired as a spokesman when scrutiny surrounding the ads erupted, said in 2004 that Mr. Perry’s donation to the Swift Boat Veterans reflected his belief in the group’s message.
‘‘In my conversations with Bob, he just said, ‘John contacted me, told me what he was trying to do, and it sounded good to me.’ That’s really the way he does it,’’ Miller said in 2004. ‘‘People call him and pitch him, and if he likes what he hears, he’ll write a check.’’
Mr. Perry was also a prominent financial supporter of Governor Rick Perry of Texas, but was not related.
Last year alone, Bob Perry gave more than $18 million to Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and organizations that backed his candidacy. That ranked him third among all Romney donors, behind only Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson and Dallas billionaire Harold Simmons.
Mr. Perry founded Houston-based Perry Homes, one of the largest homebuilders in Texas.
He was also involved in state politics. Late last year, he gave $45,000 to George P. Bush, the 36-year-old nephew of former president George W. Bush. The younger Bush is now running for Texas land commissioner in his first bid for public office.
‘‘His astonishing success story as a businessman serves as an inspiration to anyone who ever dreamed of bigger things, and his selfless dedication to the people and causes he believed in serves as an inspiration to anyone who has ever felt the call to get involved,’’ said Governor Perry, who also ran for president in 2012.
Bob Perry’s generosity extended to other state houses, including Wisconsin last year as Governor Scott Walker, a Republican, fought efforts for a recall. Mr. Perry, one of the largest out-of-state donors, gave at least $250,000 to help Walker keep his job.
Raised by a father who was a teacher and later became dean of students at Baylor University, Mr. Perry started his career as a high school teacher. But he switched professions in 1968 and established Perry Homes, where he made his fortune.